One of the paradoxes of the work of Paul Weller is that, while he has often said he works in traditional forms, and his critics often deride him for his ‘dadrock’ tastes and musical conservatism, within that framework he has been surprisingly experimental.
For example, imagine being in one of the biggest groups in Britain and splitting it at its height to form a loose musical collective whose first album featured legitimate attempts at Blue Note jazz, hip-hop, gypsy folk and modern soul. Now, imagine that same group, at the height of acid house, releasing a near-sixty-minute album, whose entire first side of vinyl consisted of Debussy and Satie-influenced classical suites of beautiful melancholy.
Imagine that album’s writer hitting his fifties and celebrating by releasing a 21-track kaleidoscopic album of psychedelia, mod-pop, rootsy folk, breezy soul, jazz, Germanic free-form electronics and spoken word—all with an immediacy its creator hadn’t written with in many years. And to follow that up with experiments in Bowie-esque art-pop, with songs written around soundscapes and found sounds instead of traditional composition! Not to mention 2018’s dip into a Val Doonican-style easy listening, and this past January’s ‘In Another Room’ EP of Avant-Garde found sound collages for the hip Ghost Box label. These are not the steps of an artist who just wants to copy The Small Faces and Traffic, as Weller is so often accused of doing.
‘On Sunset’ is Weller’s 15th solo studio album, his 26th if you include his work with The Jam and The Style Council (27 of you include the soundtrack to the film ‘Jawbone’). As a writer, he has nothing left to prove but what’s impressive is that he still feels the need to push and progress his songwriting for himself, to explore more outré influences and what they can bring to his more traditional vein of songwriting.
While Weller is not what you’d call innovative, or breaking new ground in his writing as opposed to popular music in general, since his popular and creative renaissance with 2005’s ‘As Is Now’, Weller has increasingly brought more experimental elements to bear on his songs. Making a meeting point for art and pop to meet in a vibrant, accessible way such as someone like David Bowie, for example, did in his mid-to-late 70’s peak.
Take opening track ‘Mirror Ball’ for example. A seven-minute essay on the joy and importance of clubbing and dance music to young people. Musically it follows the journey that this joy takes; starting with a vaguely 1920’s ballad feel that brings a feeling of gentle, simple optimism, before audibly dissolving into a mini-collage of found sounds Weller recorded in his phone (the drugs kicking in, maybe?). The end of which arrives on a round of applause that ushers in a cool, chilled, late Funkadelic-style groove, complete with a G-Funk Moog whistling away in the background (a first for Weller). As the party hits full swing, any thoughts and consideration give way to a simple, joyful groove that envelopes and completes everything. Just like the best nights out, then. I’m just glad he spared us the comedown.
‘Mirror Ball’ was heavily singled out for its Avant-Garde found sound section during the publicity campaign prior to ‘On Sunset’. But initially, I was a little disappointed because from the descriptions I’d read, I thought the track was going to take things even further! Over-hype, of course, tends to set false expectations, and I’ve actually really warmed to the track after several listens. No, it’s not as ‘out there’ as the press would have had you believe, but it is experimental in terms of Weller’s oeuvre, and on its own terms is a fun slice of laid-back art-soul. It works well as an opening to the album and sets the tone for what’s to come.
In fact, ‘laid-back art-soul’ is probably the best description of the album as a whole. Weller sounds relaxed throughout and is clearly enjoying himself. The overall sound draws on Weller’s love for the kind of chilled, seventies, Sunday Morning-soul of Roy Ayers and Bill Withers. While he never reaches into the heights of Station to Station-style art-soul, there is a delicate balance between the two elements. The art elements, outside of ‘Mirror Ball’, featuring more as textures, with Weller’s newfound love of found sounds and the electronic pulses and squalls of his work on (relatively) recent albums like Wake Up The Nation, Sonik Kicks and Saturn’s Pattern, giving the songs a slight sense of strangeness and tension they might not have otherwise had.
While it’s fair to say that outside of ‘Mirror Ball’, On Sunset tones down the more avant-garde elements of Weller’s recent music, these elements when they do appear work as more than mere window dressing. ‘Old Father Thyme’ kicks off with what sounds like a moody old-school House piano riff with drum machine accompaniment, before dissolving into reverb and re-emerging as a clear, soulful, singer-songwriter piano jam with funky drums. ‘Earth Beat’ rides a vaguely-modern, vaguely-eighties R’n’B-rock sound, with burbling synth sounds and subtle guitars riding the groove and guest vocals from recent Dua Lipa tour mate and contemporary R’n’B singer Col3trane. And album closer ‘Rockets’ takes the form of a classic Bowie ballad (think ‘Wild is The Wind’ or ‘Fantastic Voyage’) and layers it’s sorrowful strum and crooned vocals with a wall of strings and a beautifully discordant guitar line riding the song to its conclusion.
‘Mirror Ball’ might be the track that everyone will talk about at first, but the heart of the record lies at its centre. ‘More’ is a great, moody groove in the style of Roy Ayers’ ‘We Live In Brooklyn. Baby’ that features vocals in French from Julie Gros of Le Superhomard, and dispenses with the vocals after the three-minute mark to leave its remaining three minutes free to push its fantastic, moody, tough groove to the centre. It’s stunning. This is followed by the title track, which to my ears is the opening chord change from George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ transformed remarkably into a laid back, West Coast soul groove, complete with more Moog synthesiser, smooth strings and horns, and lapping waves to give it that real L.A. feel. Weller sings of the palm trees swaying, and I can almost feel the breeze on my face—it’s that evocative. These two tracks form the heart of the album for me, and I can see myself returning to these often.
It’s not the most immediate of albums, and I did have to listen to it three or four times before it bedded in for me and I felt I knew what it was really about. Weller’s not aiming for immediacy here, and the only real example of such would be the single ‘Village’, with its breezy, sweet chorus and melodic bassline. The concerns here are of groove, mood and texture and on those terms, the album is a success. I’ve never had a problem with listening to an album a few times before it sinks in. Sometimes you have to put the work in to be rewarded by art. Sometimes that’s part of the fun.
Perhaps the point where the album stumbles a little is in its second half, with the Kinksy, music hall jaunt of ‘Equanimity’ only meeting its genre halfway—featuring a ruminative lyric on a tense relationship and some moody chord changes that leaves me a little cold in comparison with its music hall trappings. It also sticks out like a sore thumb tonally on an album celebrating the passion of its author for soul music. Following song ‘Walkin’ uses the singer-songwriter piano style of ‘Old Father Thyme’ but strips it of the House music feel that elevated that song, the plodding rhythm here waiting to find something that will elevate it and coming up short. In hindsight, bonus tracks ‘4th Dimension—an instrumental with bright, airy electronics, wah-wah guitar and an old-school House/Techno drum machine rhythm—and ‘Ploughman’—with a genuinely jaunty, slightly psychedelic rhythm and blues vibe that skips happily along—would have been better songs to feature in the main body of the album.
But ultimately, these are perhaps churlish complaints about an album that is clearly in love with life, wants to dance and wants you to dance with it. It’s a perfect album to stick on in the background on a warm summer’s day as you chill out in the heat, or to luxuriate in its ear candy through headphones as the temperature drops in the early evening cool.
And there are not too many of Paul Weller’s albums you can say that about!