“In any relationship you can fall into that trap of taking each other for granted. You have to kick that up the arse sometimes.” ~Paul Weller commenting on the break-up of The Jam, in “Changing Man: An Audience With Paul Weller”
In many ways, we the audience have been taking singer and songwriter Paul Weller for granted. That’s hardly a surprise, considering the man has been in the public conscious since 1976, when he debuted with his seminal band, the Jam; remained a presence throughout the ’80s with his subsequent band, the Style Council; and then continued from the ’90s to the present as a solo artist. With such a long career, it would be difficult for anyone to remain committed, let alone stay familiar with all of the man’s activities. Outside of the U.K., where he has consistently charted throughout his career, he is often remembered in parts: the nostalgic yearn for the Jam; casual pop listeners of a certain age remember the Style Council’s hits; and Anglophiles hail the “Modfather’s” solo oeuvre. Some of you may fall into choice D (some of the above) or E (none of the above) — for the record, I’m D. Regardless of which camp you fall into, don’t feel at ease if your response to Weller’s 10th album, Wake Up The Nation, is lukewarm, at best. It’s a natural response that happens to the best of us.
Let the feeling overtake you.
See, doesn’t that feel better?
Now, consider this. Weller is turning 52 this year. He wrote six albums with the Jam in six years and another six in six with the Style Council. His solo output has not kept up the same pace, but he has averaged one every two years. Joe Strummer may have run marathons, but Weller has proven to be the endurance musician by producing over 20 solid albums over a 30-plus-year career. Weller may be criticized for being “intimidating,” but for fuck’s sake, look at the c.v.: The man deserves your respect. Take that up the arse and read on.
The arrival of Wake Up The Nation comes accompanied by a considerable U.K.-based press push that can be summarized as follows:
1. Call it a comeback, or a return to Jam-era form.
2. Reinforce point 1 by pointing out the “reunion” with Bruce Foxton, bassist from the Jam.
3. Also call it “experimental,” like his most recent album, 22 Dreams.
4. Suggest a correlation between Weller’s age and the recent death of his father with an output of “maturity.”
5. And add some ancillary talking-points, like My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and longtime session drummer Clem Cattini make guest appearances; and wasn’t David Cameron’s “Eton Rifles” comment misguided?
All of which is a bit rubbish and ignores the broader point: Weller has turned in another solid rawk album. Whether you’re a longtime fan or coming to Weller with little-to-no context, Wake Up The Nation comes across as a lean, physical record with enough lucid zingers to make you hungry for more.
Certainly, Weller fans of any era of his career will recognize his prime influences: British rock and American soul/rhythm & blues of the ’60s. The album blasts open with the distorted Jerry Lee Lewis-style romp “Moonshine.” Shortly after, the lush vocal harmonies and brisk clip of “No Tears To Cry” are taken straight from the page of Northern Soul standards. However, Weller and producer Simon Dine find clever ways to brand each song in a distinctive manner. “Find The Torch, Burn The Plans” buttresses pub-style anthem rawk with an over-the-top, hearty accompaniment from the “Working Gay Community Choir” (a pseudonym for one of his daughters). Weller revisits funk rhythms on “Aim High,” but throws out the acid jazz and new wave pop nostalgia in favor of clanging bells, guitar noise and action-movie horn accents. And “Andromeda” is a tight constellation of Beatles psychedelia, Oasis grandeur and Weller’s sweet sentiments that connects several musical points of reference throughout the artist’s life.
At 16 songs lasting slightly more than 40 minutes (only four of the 16 run more than three minutes — and barely more, at that), none of the songs linger. Don’t be fooled, Wake Up The Nation is not an album of Jam-style punk bangers. Sure, “Fast Car/Slow Traffic” has the adrenaline rush and critical eye of early Jam classics (with some occasional breaks for piano noodling). But the rest of the album has far more myriad interests in terms of rhythms, textures and tone. See the dirty dirge “7 & 3 (Is The Striker’s Name),” which features the aforementioned Shields, for a case in point. It is certainly messy and crunchy at times, but it also has the sound of a man with many ideas, and it puts them down deliberately, condenses them and moves on. Which is impressive because Weller entered the studio with only sketches of his songs. Perhaps more credit should be given to producer Simon Dine, with whom Weller wrote and arranged the music in the studio. Yet, the songs feel like a conversation that is short and to the point: “Here it is. Got it? Good. Onward.” This is truly the music of a 50-plus-year-old man who has been hitting the gym. He’s not trying to waste your time. If only today’s rappers could take a cue and stop making hour-plus albums…