Paul Weller returns on April 12 with new album 'Wake Up The Nation'. He's hailed it as "political with a small 'p'" himself, and it's clear straight away that he's got rather a lot to get off his chest. There'll be a full, considered review in the issue of NME onsale the week before that, but seeing as we've just had the album on the stereo, here's a first-listen, track-by-track run down.
All guns blazing from the off. Messed-up background feedback and honky-tonk piano compliment Weller's offbeat, slightly pished sounding vocals. "A bag of nerves I seem to suppress," goes the very first line, while the second chorus intones "there's something I cannot possess" – but this isn't a 'poor me' record at all. He's sounding up for it and energised here, and that's something that's a running theme throughout the album.
'Wake Up The Nation'
"Get your face off of Facebook and turn off your phone" sings the God of Mod at one point, his voice sounding as venomous as it's ever been. Another straightforward rocker, this one's punctuated by loads of funky "ooh"s, blasts of '60s harmonium and a great brass section (not to mention an even greater line about "scratching around in a second-hand gown...").
'No Tears To Cry'
Legendary session drummer and Tornados member Clem Cattini (age: 72) plays on this, and while he's relatively low in the mix, his inclusion is perfectly justified. It's a more than decent stab at the woozy, slightly slower paced Northern soul classics that practically gave birth to Weller's love of all things blue-eyed and dancey. You could imagine Dean Parrish turning to murder to get his lungs around something like this.
'Fast Car / Slow Traffic'
AKA the one featuring Bruce Foxton. You'll know it's him straight away, as he's back with one of those classic Jam basslines - part meat'n'potatoes simplicity, part Kinks bounciness. It's exactly two minutes of Weller shouting his mouth off… about traffic queues mostly. Listen closely and it sounds like he's actually singing "fuck off slow traffic" over and over, the same way Oasis substituted "white lime" for "white line" in 'Cigarettes & Alcohol', perhaps.
The most overtly psychedelic track on the album, and the most instantly catchy. It may be under two minutes long (spot a theme here?), but it's got a glorious melody that's as infectious as anything in Weller's solo oeuvre. The verse melody recalls The Beatles' 'Sun King' too.
Off-kilter instrumental with brush-stroke drums, dubby bass, a mellotron and effect-laden, high-as-a-kite guitars. Dreamy, to say the least.
Classic solo Weller on this, which sounds like it's been lost in his back pocket since the 'Stanley Road' days. Lyrically, it sees him vulnerable - focusing on feeling lost and the battle between weak and strong. Also features a ghostly spoken word bit and loads of reverb-tinged "oooohs".
'Find The Torch, Burn The Plans'
Weller does drone, with pretty much one chord played the whole way through on this (though there are added lashings of Mellotron and a descending lead guitar line). The vox can't help but make you think of 'Ticket To Ride', but this is no pastiche. The drunken singalong style chorus actually makes it the one bona fide anthem on the album, and lyrically, everything is positive, with "shout like you mean it" being the rasping, repetitive message. Backing vocals come courtesy of Weller's daughter "and her mate".
The first of two funk tunes (second is 'Whatever Next'), this one features the return of the 'Weller falsetto'. Offset with nice '...Walrus'-esque strings, it reminds you of forgotten Liverpool tunesmith (and sometime Weller bassist) Edgar Jones, partly because of it's eclectic nature. It veers from Beefheartian fuzz-jam to a Liquid Liquid-style chorus, before snaking back to a classic outro that by rights should have soundtracked a Huggy Bear scene in Starsky & Hutch.
Weller condenses five great individual tunes into little over four minutes, for a sort of Legoland version of a rock opera. First, we get kooky dinner-party acid-jazz, then there's the trippiest bit of the whole record (think 'The Sound Of Music' crossed with the sound of lift muzak), followed by a burst of classic punk-pop stomp, and then some backwards electro-mindfuckery (fed through a Britpop guitar rack). Finally, it end's with 30 seconds of Weller sitting alone at the grand piano, singing "take me back to the fields". That bit's about his dad (RIP) and it's the most beautiful part of the record.
'Grasp And Still Connect'
Weller wants his woman but she don't want him. Essentially 'Grasp And Still Connect' is a rag-time blues version of 'Can't Buy Me Love'. "Wonder if you'll ever change," sings a bruised-sounding Modfather at one point. Awww.
A second instrumental, but with more kick than the first one. Harps, flute, piano, programmed drums, more mellotron...they're all here. Cleverly, like The La's 'Looking Glass', it includes bits from the album we've heard already - a snippet of 'Find The Torch, Burn The Plans' here, a bit of 'No Tears To Cry' there.
'7 + 3 Is The Strikers Name'
This one you'll already know, what with it being the single and that. Kevin Shields, while not at full sonic force, owns the track - but it's actually quite tame in terms of weirdness compared to some of the other stuff on the album. "I don't want to fuck it up this time" Weller sings at one point, before going all Small Faces on us and pushing through regardless. A "sha-la-la" outro also adds to the (modest) modishness of the track.
'Up The Dosage'
Weller takes on disco and wins. It's disco in the same way Rose Royce or Blondie were disco, though, rather than The Cheeky Girls. His vocal sounds spirited and youthful, like his 'All Mod Cons' self if he'd truly got 'the soul' at that point of his career. It's got a bassline Franz Ferdinand have been dreaming about all their life and stonking drums - not to mention numerous weird, misplaced samples and loads of echo. "Ill make it right," Weller sings over and over. It's the message of the record.
'Pieces Of A Dream'
Initial acoustic guitars get punctuated by OTT pianos and backward drums, which somehow manage to keep the whole thing in place. The lull behind the final gale of the storm, you could say...
'Two Fat Ladies'
Little Barrie's Barry Cadogan plays guitar on this one, and you have to wonder why he's not in Weller's band full-time. While the Modfather sprouts gibberish about bingo numbers, of all things (supposedly made up on the spot), his band - led by Cadogan - whip out lashings of thunder-paced Motown brilliance, all swirling and pinned around a riff that's come straight from The Beatles' 'Revolver' sessions.
First-Listen Verdict: Weller proved with '22 Dreams' that he was still worthy, and on 'Wake Up The Nation' he takes that notion even further. Essentially, he doesn't give a fuck. Chuck a bit of falsetto funk in here, an OAP drummer there… whatever, it'll sound good. While it probably won't dissuade his dad rock-hating critics, '…Nation' is effectively the sound of one of the most accomplished songwriters ever enjoying himself in the studio and striving to push his music into the least predictable places possible.