Looking forward. Looking back. Embracing the new. Celebrating the old. Since his start with the Jam, Paul Weller’s contradictory impulses have introduced a slew of sonic delights – as well as the occasional dud – to this thing we call rock ’n’ soul. On Sunset, his 15th solo studio set, finds him weaving avant-garde accents into an oft-compelling tapestry of sound, while lyrically indulging in the self-reflection that comes with growing old(er).
It’s Weller being Weller, in other words. He’s always mused about life, love and the meanings therein, after all, and occasionally looked askance at the wider world. He’s also been adept at integrating seemingly discordant chords into a coherent whole.
The first track, “Mirror Ball,” is actually a holdover from the True Meanings sessions; Weller originally heard it as a b-side or bonus track, but realized it deserved a wider audience. A suite of sorts, the music rolls toward shore in a succession of waves for almost seven-and-a-half minutes, threatening to inundate everything but stopping just short.
“Old Father Tyme” and “Village” wouldn’t have been out of place on True Meanings. The former finds him staring age in the face: “Time will become you/You’ll become time/All hail the love/It’s the love divine.” The latter, meanwhile, finds the 62-year-old Weller measuring his life and realizing that, with heaven now in sight, he’s content: “I never knew what a world this was/Till I looked in my heart/And saw myself for what I am/Found a whole world in my hand…”
(As Todd Rundgren might say, “love is the answer.”)
On the surface, “More” is about consumerism – but, upon deeper inspection, it’s – ahem – more than that: “The more we get, the more we lose/when all is ‘more,’ it’s more we choose/There’s always something else in store/That keeps me running down the road/Keeps me running/To an unknown place I think is more.” In essence, the quest for more distracts from what we have, i.e. the present. I should add that, aside from the philosophizing, the almost seven-minute opus features a way-cool vocal cameo from French singer Julie Gros (of the band Le Superhomard) as well as incendiary guitar runs from Weller and Steve Cradock.
In addition to Gros, contributors to the album include former Style Council mate Mick Talbot, the Staves, Col3trane, Madness saxophonist Lee Thompson, Slade violinist Jim Lea, the Paraorchestra and Irish composer Hannah Peel. Weller plays Captain Many Hands on many tracks, while drummer Ben Gordelier keeps the beat throughout; Andy Crofts plays on most of the songs and Cradock lends his talents to four.
In many respects, the lead single “Earth Beat” is the culmination of Weller’s intent with the album, as it features synths, blips and beats as well as Col3trane and the Staves on backing vocals. As he explained on Instagram, it ”comes from a track that Jim Jupp had done as Belbury Poly on his label GhostBox. I’m a big fan of that label. I think the track was called ‘The Willows.’ I started singing this song over the top of it, and came up with the bass riff as well and the guitar riff – just singing over the top of Jim’s original track. Then I got in touch, asked if I could try and develop the track and it rolled on from that.”
The album proper closes with “Rockets,” which is guaranteed to blast most listeners into deep space, a la “Space Oddity” or “Ashes to Ashes.” It’s an intense, fanciful tribute to David Bowie.
The deluxe version of the album features five additional tracks, including an “orchestral mix” of the bittersweet title track, which finds Weller seeking out the clubs he played in L.A. with the Jam. “And the world I knew/Has all gone by/All the places we used to go/Belong to a time/Someone else’s life/Another time…”
As a whole, to my ears, the album finds Weller at the top of his game, offering a bit of the old with a bit of the new. It’s one of the year’s best, thus far (albeit with one of the year’s worst covers).