Paul Weller was once labelled a “musical hod carrier” by an unfriendly critic. The insult summed up the disdain among the snootier elements of the music press, for whom Weller was the quintessence of dull, plodding songwriting. “Telling you, mate, it is class warfare,” he clapped back to his biographer Paolo Hewitt, author of Paul Weller: The Changing Man. “They hate me because I’m not one of them.”
With a father who had been a real hod carrier, the younger Weller possessed a keen sense of us and them. Singing as though in a coiled rage, with tightened jaw and glaring eyes, the writer of the politically charged hit “The Eton Rifles” staked out a complicated position in Britain’s antagonistic social landscape. He stood up for his background yet also rebelled against narrow ideas about how that background should shape his work. Classic rock conservatism coexisted with a willingness to take risks, such as his swerve into urbane soul with The Style Council in the 1980s.
The sniping became more voluble in the 2000s when the “Modfather” lost his mojo with a succession of genuinely plodding albums. But then came recovery with 2008’s 22 Dreams, a richly composed, adventurous record that marked the start of his 50s. “Will the world to listen to you, still rattling on, when all the war is won,” he sang on one of its songs. The rat-a-tat-tat of the angry young man lay in the past.
Now 62, Weller continues in this questing, contemplative mode with his new album On Sunset. Although not up to the high level of 22 Dreams or its successors, it’s a solid restatement of his creative health in middle age. His voice has a pleasingly husky quality, impassioned but warm. Burnished by horns and strings, the music ebbs and surges, patient but dynamic.
“Mirror Ball” opens with a sedate spin through disco, soul and rock but builds into a wilder, psychedelic affair. “Baptiste” is a classic-soul chugger, formulaic but sung with feeling. “More” is highly atmospheric psychedelia with eastern themes, insistent horns and a driving beat. The title track is an orchestral-soul cruise through a golden-hued Los Angeles.
“Equanimity” strays into Britpop pastiche with its look back at Sgt Pepper-era Beatles. But the song’s melodiousness sums up the album’s optimistic outlook. The spinning globe in “Mirror Ball” is recast as our turning planet in “Earth Beat”. The journey along Sunset Boulevard in “On Sunset” leads to a Bowie-esque trip into the solar system in “Rockets”.
A greater design seems to lie behind these linked pieces of imagery, a hippy-ish sense of holism. While the search for insight leads Weller into the occasional banality (“The more we get the more we lose”), it chimes satisfyingly with the belief in a better world that fuelled the angry songs of his youth.
‘On Sunset’ is released by Polydor
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