Paul Weller: On Sunset review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Polydor)
With enough melodies to appease the feather-cut-dads fanbase, and enough experimentation to slake his own curveball tastes, this is have-your-cake-and-eat-it Weller

In 2014, Paul Weller released his umpteenth compilation, surveying a career now into its sixth decade. More Modern Classics came with sleeve notes written by Weller himself, which ended with a gruff message to his audience: “Don’t be scared of the new, don’t get bogged down in the cliches of, ‘Oh it’s not as good as …’ or you’ll miss out on what is NOW.” You could say that’s a bit rich coming from Weller, a revivalist from the start, who furthermore could be found in the midst of his 90s renaissance informing the late music writer David Cavanagh that “everything’s shit after 68”. Then again, the Weller who admonished his fans against looking back was in the middle of one of his periodic, confounding career resets.

Paul Weller: On Sunset album art work.
Paul Weller: On Sunset album art work. Photograph: PR Handout

After years sticking fast to a well-turned but increasingly hoary brand of trad rock, he unexpectedly unleashed a succession of sprawling, chaotic, grippingly experimental albums on which avant-garde electronic instrumentals fought for space with off-kilter acid folk, spiky guitar noise, free improvisation on the piano and songs that came in five-part suites. Weller sounded re-energised, the reviews were ecstatic, but the response from the rump of his fanbase – the feather cut-sporting dads who may well represent the world’s first middle-aged youth cult – was decidedly mixed.

From 2017, A Kind Revolution and the following year’s True Meanings offered the conservative wing of his fanbase some consolation – the former dialled down the experimentation, the latter explored an acoustic strand of his writing you could trace back to the Jam’s English Rose and Liza Radley – but Weller clearly isn’t done springing surprises yet. His first release of 2020 was an EP of musique concrète-style instrumentals on the left-field electronic label Ghost Box. Which brings us to On Sunset, an album on which he gamely attempts to meld the competing desires to be the keeper of musical traditions and a modernist in the original sense of the phrase: if you were looking for a spiritual forebear in Weller’s catalogue, you might alight on 1980’s Sound Affects, where the influence of the era’s wilfully jarring post-punk was overlaid with his obsession with mid-60s Beatles.

At one extreme are opener Mirror Ball and Earth Beat. The former goes on for nearly eight minutes and contains shimmering synths that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place on a mainstream 2020 pop single, Beach Boys-worthy harmony vocals, a weird moment where it appears to be shifting into an entirely different tempo before deciding against it, a lengthy free-form interlude that could have come off the aforementioned Ghost Box EP and a lo-fi piano coda. Despite a title that suggests something unspeakable you might stumble across on one of Glastonbury’s outlying stages involving a didgeridoo and a rapping crusty, Earth Beat is a dramatic reworking of The Willows, a track from Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp’s 2004 debut as the Belbury Poly, reshaping the original’s eerie electronics into a kind of warped soul track with guest appearance from rising London R&B artist Col3trane and a glam-era glitter-beat.

Paul Weller: Earth Beat – video

Another curveball comes with Equanimity, which features Jim Lea of Slade on violin and sounds like David Bowie, an artist Weller paid open homage to on True Meanings: not, it’s worth noting, the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust or Low, but the Bowie found on his eponymous 1967 debut, in thrall to music hall and Anthony Newley’s brand of musical theatre. At the other extreme, meanwhile, there’s Baptiste and On Sunset, offering warm, soul-infused rock that could have been released in 1969 and 1972 respectively.

The rest lurks somewhere in between, offering gentle disruptions of the familiar. More offers the kind of relaxed bucolic sound found on 1993’s Wild Wood, but underpinned by a taut, metronomic bass line that leans towards krautrock. Old Father Tyme has a naggingly familiar guitar riff weaving through satisfyingly off-beam production – a drum machine fades in and out of the mix, Weller’s vocal comes decorated with little bursts of dubby echo – and one of a number of lyrics on which Weller, who spent his early years as a songwriter obsessed with his own youth, addresses ageing with surprising equanimity. There’s a lot of stuff here about contentment and growing into yourself: “Not a thing I’d change if I could, I’m happy here in my neighbourhood,” he sings in Village.

You could, if you were so minded, mourn the sonic shock value of 22 Dreams or Wake Up the Nation, or indeed raise a quizzical eyebrow at how much the electric piano-flecked Village resembles the kind of relaxed mid-70s rock that bands like the Jam set themselves in spiky opposition to. But you’d have a hard time arguing that On Sunset doesn’t work as an album, held together not just by its overriding lyrical theme but uniformly strong melodies. As exercises in trying to have your cake and eat it go, it’s pretty impressive.

• On Sunset is released on Polydor on 3 July.

This week Alexis listened to

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Alexis Petridis

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