Paul Weller has achieved many things across nearly five decades in the music business, but only one of them is considered taboo: maturity. Weller’s fifteenth solo studio album, ‘On Sunset’, is out now and is yet another reflection of the perpetual progression this singular artist has maintained across his life. I write life, not career, as separating the work from whatever else Weller gets up to feels reductive. Music is where it has always been at for England’s most famous soul boy.
That word, soul, is important when describing ‘On Sunset’: this is a record of mature soul music written and recorded by a songwriter with one eye on the past and one eye on the future – but a spirit fully committed to right now.
It was 2008 when a then-50 year-old Weller released the catalytic ’22 Dreams’ and sparked a so-called creative renaissance that has seen such albums come and go, some more successfully than others, as the metallic machine music of ‘Wake Up The Nation’, the psych-fest of ‘Sonik Kicks’, ‘Saturns Pattern’ and its melodic meanderings, the simpler songs of ‘A Kind Revolution’ and the reflective yet restless ‘True Meanings’. Most contained great songs, all were home to good ideas and they generally met with approval from critics and audiences alike. But something doesn’t feel right about the narrative that has sprung up around this music Weller has released over the last decade or so: it implies what came before wasn’t good enough.
That’s not true. Sure, Weller felt that, following his solo start in 1992, his band and creativity went down the ‘great live band’ route whilst the recordings suffered – but to write off tunes as sharp as ‘Up In Suze’s Room’, ‘He’s The Keeper’ and ‘Savages’, for starters, is to do a disservice to an artist whose best work has always remained from the very top table. ‘On Sunset’, then, is the next album from a songwriter who matures with every release and imbues his music with wherever he’s at the moment tape rolls.
Weller’s latest sounds like it was recorded following a spell of happiness that tamed his restless spirit just long enough to capture the warmth of that loving feeling. Laidback? That’s not a word normally associated with the ex-Jam man, but this record ripples with the heat of the sun on a lapping shoreline. The title-track arrived when Weller was visiting his son in Los Angeles and his mind’s eye revisited his first visit to California in the late seventies. The groove is great, the singing exceptional and the production as crisp as a freshly pressed buttoned-down Ben Sherman (or is it Ralph Lauren these days?). It’s not an anomaly, either, as both ‘Baptiste’ and ‘Old Father Tyme’ are dominated by the slick soul some might have imagined George Michael growing older making. “Time will become you, you’ll become time” sings Weller over the languid treacle of the latter as long-time producer Jan Kyber’s production provides a bed of modern soul sounds for the song to stretch out on.
All ten tunes seem to stretch out, though a quick look at the track listing reveals most songs come in under five minutes… therein lies the secret to the loveliness of ‘On Sunset’: whilst the music and instrumentation is another step forward for Weller (though Hannah Peel’s strings are a welcome return of the potent pastoral sounds of ‘True Meanings’), the songs are as consistent as their creator. Yes, there’s guest spots, hints of musique concrete, French singers and squelchy sounds, but if you’re willing to go the distance that measures the differences between The Jam in 1977 and Paul Weller in 2020, there’s gold in the hills for your reward.
By Alan O’Hare