When Paul Weller released the nostalgic ruminations of True Meanings in 2018, it might have suggested that having reached 60, the songwriter was ready to give up the sense of adventure that had informed his work since 22 Dreams. Perhaps he was going to ditch the krautrock and electronica for more albums crammed with string arrangements? Maybe he was about to knock out a big-band covers LP of American Songbook classics?
The release of “In Another Room” this January scuppered that idea. This limited-edition EP of sound collages and sonic experiments came out on Ghost Box, the label that pioneered the concept of hauntology in music – atmospheric, often avant-garde electronic sounds that evoke buried shared cultural memories. Weller’s contribution to the genre was in keeping with the aesthetic and typically accomplished.
This experience has found its way into On Sunset, Weller’s 15th album and first for Polydor since The Style Council. The album swings back and forth between now and nostalgia, as Weller tries to reconcile the desire to look back with his constant fear of stagnation. There are several songs that could have been on Style Council albums – solid, sometimes superb, soul anthems like “Baptiste”, “Village”, “Walkin’” – all of which happen to feature contributions from Mick Talbot. But there’s also “Mirror Ball” and “Earth Beat”, both of which carry the influence of Ghost Box.
On the former, it’s the subtle sense of nostalgia that infects the glistening atmosphere, as Weller croons a paean to clubs and dancing. The song – a True Meanings holdover originally considered as a B-side but eventually upgraded to album mood-setter – starts with a gentle waft of strings that gives a whiff of last waltz at the Woking youth club before the lights go up. It then moves gradually through disco, soul and funk as it explores and celebrates the way a physical space such as a disco can maintain meaning through different eras for successive generations.
This theme is covered by two other songs: “Baptiste” is a straight-up celebration of Weller’s love of soul, while “On Sunset” is a more personal take on the same notion. It starts a little like “That’s Entertainment” with a gentle strum of acoustic guitar as Weller reflects on his own experiences with The Jam in LA, before expanding into a more complex piece of freaky soul. Further echoes of the musical past can be heard on closing track “Rockets”, which has the suppressed drama of a Bowie ballad circa Hunky Dory and a free-wheeling lyric that sees Weller attacking institutions, hidden wealth and social mobility like the man who wrote “Eton Rifles”, “Mr Clean” and “Walls Come Tumbling Down!”, albeit with a resignation born of bitter experience.
“Earth Beat”’s debt to Ghost Box is more blatant and less successful than “Mirror Ball”. The label co-founder Jim Jupp gets a co-writing credit and has described it as a reworking of “The Willows”, a track Jupp wrote and recorded in 2004 as Belbury Poly. Featuring a vocal contribution from singer Col3trane (who happens to be dating Weller’s daughter), the song starts with a refreshing rush of electronica and R&B rhythms, but never follows up on that promise, lacking the space and strangeness of the original.
Equally odd in its own way is “Equanimity”. This marital anthem geezers in like a Kinks middle eight and features a smashing violin solo from Slade’s Jim Lea. It’s an unusually quirky approach from Weller, who for all his love of The Beatles and Small Faces, isn’t naturally disposed to that sort of music-hall whimsy. Sitting somewhere in the middle is the deliciously poised “More”. This song about pointless consumption boasts a French co-vocalist – Julie Gros of Le SuperHomard – and a beautiful drifting melody. But the real highlight
is the extended outro that brings a blizzard of mellow musical flourishes, including strings, Hammond, handclaps, soul brass, guitar (from Josh McClorey of The Strypes) and jazz flute. There’s a lot going on, but the way it is all held in balance is magnificent.
Yet for all this, the most surprising song on the album isn’t “Mirror Ball”, “Equanimity” or “Earth Beat”. Instead it’s “Village”, a beautiful soul number of the type Weller writes so well and which sees him singing of his satisfaction with his lot in life. “Lot of things, I’ve never been/I’ve never seen/I don’t care much,” he muses contentedly. “I might settle for what I am.” It’s an unusual sentiment to hear from the permanently restless Weller, especially as On Sunset demonstrates that complacency remains his greatest fear and most powerful muse.
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