The ageing legend proves he still has what it takes
That old footballing maxim about the fleeting nature of form and the permanence of class is cold comfort to musicians ailing from the creaking bones and waning powers of middle age. For [a]Paul Weller[/a], the quips about his new single almost write themselves: ‘That Dangerous Age’… what, 53? When annual visits to the colonoscopist become mandatory and your own mortality is confronted every time you rev the engine of a gaudy new sports car? Knife-edge stuff, truly.
Yet if the song itself is testament to anything, it’s that His Modjesty is both in on the joke and remaining above it. A whip-smart riposte to tabloid accusations of a mid-life crisis (Weller’s new wife Hannah is – avert thine eyes, children! – 27 years his junior), ‘That Dangerous Age’ plays with perceptions of its author as a listless, moneyed skirt-chaser before rendering them utterly moot by being – and we’re not sure why we’re so surprised by this – very good indeed: two-and-a-half virile minutes of shoo-oop-ing plastic soul that would provoke jealousy in Bowie himself. It’s an early indication that the Indian summer ushered in by 2008’s ‘22 Dreams’ and the Mercury-nominated ‘Wake Up The Nation’ isn’t over just yet.
Those looking to find fault with ‘Sonik Kicks’ will doubtless mention Weller’s recent appraisal of it as “groundbreaking”, while ignoring the caveat of, “Well, for me it is…” that followed. In truth, he’s not quite so far outside his comfort zone as you might think: the album was made at his studio in Surrey, with the usual names (Steve Cradock, [a]Noel Gallagher[/a], [a]Graham Coxon[/a]), plus his wife and kids on guesting duties. Producer and co-writer Simon Dine, widely credited with Weller’s current purple patch, returns again – although, as the two are now locked in a financial dispute, it’s likely for the last time. The best song here, the sumptuous, string-laden English pastoral of ‘By The Waters’, is a close cousin of ‘Wild Wood’, while ‘Be Happy Children’ – a mid-paced meditation on fatherhood that tests the limits of the listener’s sentimentality – is so dadrock-by-definition you briefly wonder if he’s gone all meta on us.
What is surprising, though, is Weller, that most non-negotiably English of musical icons, dabbling in krautrock, as he does on three tracks here. ‘Green’ is a Neu!-ish mish-mash of insistent synths and distended guitars, with Weller delivering an oblique spoken-word lyric that opens the album on a studiedly enigmatic note. Even taking that foretaste into account, however, ‘Kling I Klang’’s spiky electric oompah can’t help but come jackbooting out of left-field, spitting venom about the Afghan war while its knees busily piston up to its chin.
Oh, and did someone say jazz-reggae? No? Well, that’s understandable. But despite everything ‘Study In Blue’ has going against it (it’s a duet with his wife, features liberal use of melodica, and is – ahem – seven minutes of jazz-fucking-reggae), on record it’s disarmingly lovely. ‘When Your Garden’s Overgrown’, a tribute to Syd Barrett which wisely doesn’t bother trying to sound like its subject, is instead infused with the shameless love of strummed melody that characterised pre-Africa Damon Albarn.
At this stage in the game, Weller is perfectly aware of what his audience wants, but he’s also secure in the knowledge that they’re not going to simply desert at the first sign of divergence. As such, he’s now less beholden to expectation than he has been at any time since he disbanded The Jam. How much responsibility for this late-period renaissance lies with the now-estranged Dine? That’s a question for another album. ‘Sonik Kicks’ is the sound of Paul Weller growing old the only way he could – not particularly gracefully, but with no small amount of style.