18 May 2008: The trad rocker’s ninth solo album embraces everything from Krautrock to jazz. Miraculously, it’s brilliant, writes Amy Raphael
When you’ve been in the music business for over three decades, you’re about to hit 50 and your image-defining hair has long since turned silver, what the hell do you do to keep things interesting? Perhaps more to the point, is anyone out there really holding on for the ninth Weller solo album or are most simply content to return to the comfort and beauty of 1993’s Wild Wood or 1995’s Stanley Road? If you think that Weller is sitting back in Surrey, taking it easy and winding down, think again. If you’ve all but lost interest in the man they insist on calling the Modfather, read on.
Paul Weller is about to have yet another moment. He’s had plenty of these, even in recent times: the indulgence of 2004’s Studio 150, an ill-advised album of cover versions, was followed a year later by the solid, energised trad rock of As Is Now. But who could have anticipated the man who started his career with the punked-up sharpness of ‘In the City’ and ‘The Eton Rifles’ making a two-disc album that runs for 70 minutes and is most easily defined by the word ‘concept’? Not only that, but it’s actually pretty damn fine.
The record is, apparently, an attempt to capture the changing of the seasons. It all sounds terribly pretentious, but it’s not. The regular set-up stayed the same: 22 Dreams was recorded over the period of a year in a rural studio near Weller’s hometown of Woking with guitarist Steve Cradock, who has lent all Weller’s solo albums a distinctive retro sound, and producer Simon Dine. But, instead of being paralysed by impending middle age, the notoriously prickly Weller has decided to loosen up. And the results are startling.
Weller is still embracing rock, soul and jazz-funk, but there are new genres previously unexplored on his solo projects: electronica, Krautrock and spoken word. The themes (love, the breakdown of relationships, the passing of time) may be familiar but the music is often experimental. With lightly arpeggiated piano, a harp and Robert Wyatt on trumpet, ‘Song for Alice’ is a bluesy, free-form homage to the late Alice Coltrane; ‘111’, influenced by Sixties avant-garde, is a chaotic mix of Moog and mellotron.
Yet, away from the psychedelic madness of ‘Echoes Round the Sun’ (on which Noel Gallagher plays bass and piano), there are quiet moments too. ‘Lullaby für Kinder’ is a gentle, melancholic instrumental, while ‘Invisible’ is a sparse love song worthy of mid-period Elvis Costello. It’s a little surprising to hear the early era Bowie vocals on ‘Black River’ (which translates as Weller doing Bowie doing Newley: very odd and oddly good). But then this collection of songs is way out of the changing man’s comfort zone. Which is not to say there’s no vintage Weller here. There among the unexpected is the thumping rock of the title track, courtesy of Little Barrie, and ‘Cold Moments’, which sounds like a Style Council cover. Has Woking’s finest been around for so long that he is now influencing himself?
Such an eclectic, ambitious record might be expected to sound disparate, desperate even, but instead it’s a set of distinctive, strangely addictive songs. Only ‘God’, the misplaced spoken word track, disrupts the flow. Weller himself says it’s ‘designed to be listened to in one sitting, in the same way that Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper’s were’. 22 Songs certainly isn’t up there with two of the best records ever made, but the bar has been raised and the conceit works. At almost 50, Paul Weller is one of the few musicians in this country who, alongside Damon Albarn, can turn his hand to almost anything and make it work.
Download: ‘Echoes Round the Sun’, ‘Black River’, ‘111’