Album Review: Paul Weller – ‘Wake Up The Nation’ (Island)

Our Godlike Genius 2010 casts away the laurels in favour of fresh, fiery songcraft on this riotous, inventive rebirth

Take a moment to compare [a]Paul Weller[/a] to his 1977 classmates, and you’ll find that nowadays everyone’s either dead, virtually senile or beyond caring. Sting? Plays the lute. Geldof? No chance. Mick Jones? Content with backing up Damon Albarn. Even Lydon’s decided to revive his role as the fairy godmother of panto punk for the 1,056th time.

True, there are some (MacGowan, Costello) who still apply themselves with a certain level of dedication to their initial cause. But none apart from Weller actually appear that arsed about writing songs – damn fine ones – anymore. He’s just about to turn 52, and ‘Wake Up The Nation’ is his 10th solo record. It’s a collection of ludicrously fresh-sounding, short and sharp material (the majority of tracks are under two-and a-half minutes) that confirms he’s in the midst of a seriously impressive rebirth. This period of reinvention took shape with 2008’s ‘22 Dreams’, but whereas that album coerced the listener into a woozy, acid-flecked slideshow of sprawling psychedelia, ‘Wake Up…’ pushes classic British beat, mod, funk and R&B. The songs are homely and familiar, but Weller’s delivery – he made up many of the lyrics on the spot – is gloriously imperfect; lending a remarkably youthful and frankly often drunk-sounding edge to proceedings.

Critics will continue to lambast his insistence at keeping various ex-Ocean Colour Scene members in loafers by employing them as his backing band, but here Weller also works with a stellar line-up of some of Britain’s best session musos (and, on one song, his cousin Mark). They’re a ramshackle bunch, old and young – from 70-year-old Tornadoes drummer Clem Cattini to The Move’s Bev Bevan to Barry Cadogan of Little Barrie, who unleashes mesmerising Townshend-esque guitar on album closer ‘Two Fat Ladies’. Even more jaw-dropping for some, perhaps, is the inclusion of one Kevin Shields. But what’s really so shocking about that? Weller’s always been a studio nut, and ‘7 & 3 Is The Striker’s Name’ simply melds the best of both artists’ wayward palettes.

Recently separated from his girlfriend of 13 years, and mourning the death of his beloved father and manager John, ‘Wake Up…’ is also Weller’s most personal record in years, possibly ever. He sounds wounded throughout. Recent statements from the man himself about its lyrics suggest otherwise; that he’s of the Noely G opinion that one man’s beermat poetry is another’s Magna Carta. But you’d have to be deaf not to realise he’s addressing issues here. In giddy honky-tonk opener ‘Moonshine’ he’s “a bag of nerves”, while there are tears during the majestic Dean Parrish swoon of ‘No Tears To Cry’. ‘Andromeda’ – which houses Weller’s sweetest melody in years – sees him darkly announce, “My mood gets lifted with the gravity’s pull/Looks like I’m smiling but I’m dying too”.

Meanwhile, ‘Trees’, is probably the world’s shortest rock opera too – five segments in even fewer minutes. We veer from a kitsch lounge opener (sung from a youthful female perspective), to Weller adopting a hilariously fey, flowery voice, to (Dr) feel-good pub-rock and eerie, windswept laments about his old man growing old, before finishing with a 30-second burst of Weller alone at the piano, begging nature to “Take me back to the fields/Where I need to be”. As eulogies go, it’s as touching as you can get. Indeed, the track’s madcap nature is also the perfect summation of ‘Wake Up…’’s genre-shifting beauty.

“Fire and skill”, our man spat in 1977. After three decades, he’s still at the top of his game – still reinventing, still chasing melodic perfection. Only difference now is that he’s pretty much on his own; nobody else flits from style to style with as much ease and precision. Modlike and Godlike – ‘Wake Up…’ shows just how lucky we are to have Weller.

Matt Wilkinson

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Click here to get your copy of Paul Weller’s ‘Wake Up The Nation’ from the Rough Trade shop