Monday, 9 June 2008

PAUL WELLER: Why Walk When You Can Run

Paul Weller and I haven't been in touch for a long time. Of course I don't mean personally - even if he did buy a copy of Laura's fanzine way back in the Michael Sobell Centre day - but as artist and listener at one remove. It used to be that we were as close as closeness could be; and after all Laura and I came into contact largely because of the Jam. Every record (even the dodgy Bruce-dominant ones) was like a new and more urgent communique but we still thought the Jam finished at the right time. Then the Style Council, and we followed eagerly at first before steadily drifting away towards other concerns, and they ended up merging with a lot of other "reasonable" artists of the mid-late eighties, not quite fulfilling the Mod ZTT hairline they might originally have promised.

And then Weller with his Movement, who moved out, and finally just Paul, and Britpop got into tune with him and he appreciated it and so Wild Wood and Stanley Road, even if they weren't profound records, worked in a very elemental way. But again we sensed that he was systematically moving to a place barred from our scope of interest, although he never quite shifted out of focus; when he was good and even a little mischievous, as on 2000's Heliocentric, we bucked up our ears and hearts again.

But after Heliocentric two declined into one, and I couldn't listen to Weller's stuff for years; too, too close to my bones. I sensed him in the far distance but couldn't really connect; I was sniffily dismissive of his cover of "Wishing On A Star" in Time Out in 2004 and suspect he still loathes me for that.

Whatever. Because 22 Dreams is where we violently and vibrantly lock back into contact again. My initial view was kneejerk sceptical; 22 tracks (or, as it has turned out, 21), double vinyl, tribute to Alice Coltrane, flowery pastoral 1968 Photoshop cover design, Noel, Ocean Colour Scene and all the usual lads, limited edition booklet, trying too hard. But once actually listened to, it is a startling affair indeed and I'd be inclined to say that it's Weller's most shamelessly adventurous album in any format since Sound Affects.

There is the curiously three-legged chair thumping rock patent of latterday Weller still very much in presence, but he's no longer content to let the chair lie; thus songs like "All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You)" starts out like a standard Weller rocker but then drifts into strange tunings, notes and gestures which don't quite fit, tonalities totally unexpected. The title track is slowly undermined by a distaff of discordant horns. "Echoes Round The Sun," the Noel collaboration, plays like the Leslie cabinet-modified Donovan of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" slowly being drowned in Blue Cheer's tarmac with querulous strings to help wield the shovel.

Despite its 21 tracks (the "missing dream" comes in the form of a semi-abstract short story by poet Simon Armitage which is to be found in the CD booklet) the record's dreams are frequently dark, and increasingly as the listener proceeds the skies cloud over ominously; "Invisible" is a quietly tortured and powerful soulboy variant on Costello's "I Want To Vanish"; "Empty Ring," with its portrait of a defeated ego, still throwing punches at invisible enemies, bangs around in empty echoes like a vacated pair of crutches. "Cold Moments" sees Weller barely able to raise his voice above acoustic guitar level, being dragged away from the world he knows, staggering onto the first Green Line coach to emerge from Victoria Coach Station, looking for somewhere brighter. "Black River," featuring the flat footed thwack of guest drummer Graham Coxon, is a loose-knit ballad which periodically explodes into Temperance Seven vaudeville frolics.

Hope does eventually dawn, as it must; "One Bright Star" is one of Weller's more startling vocal performances on the album, drawing a cosmos of meaning and significance out of what is little more than minute variations on "you're the one bright star in my life," and eventually he floats out of the harsh world and into the gentler one which the strings promised on the opening "Light Nights"; the folk ballad "Where'er Ye Go" is very touching, both because of John McCusker's violin and the push-and-pull of being apart from the spirit or person who sustains you - taking most of the hope and light, but coming back with such stories. Even God makes a cameo appearance, on "God," booming at the recidivist security blanket clutcher to get the Hell out of him - and then, after a semi-abstract Moog/mellotron interlude ("111"), the lights of home in "Sea Spray" (which makes me think of a happier "happy ending" to Johnson's Trawl) gratefully merging into the lengthy ambient dissolution of the closing "Night Lights."

For indeed much of 22 Dreams draws a touchable line between 1967 adventurism and 2008 vanguard, even if the free-ish adventures of "A Dream Reprise" and the aforementioned "111" will shock only those unfamiliar with or forgetful of things like "Music For The Last Couple" almost three decades ago. For the story and emotion to work, the record has to be listened to from start to finish, uninterrupted - and even then, the outtakes collected on the bonus second CD sound indispensable, although they don't quite fit into the overall concept; "Love's Got Me Crazy," for instance, pitches a terrified Weller vocal against a modified "I'm Not In Love" background of synthesised chorales.

"Song For Alice" itself is a nice salute to the late Mrs Coltrane, made agreeably spikey by the unmistakeable baritone piano and melancholy trumpet of Robert Wyatt, switching from channel to style at unexpected junctions but still holding together (by the explicit piano-as-harp cascades). But the deepest work, and perhaps the most stunning vocal performance of Weller's career, comes, not quite with the nearly deranged rock of "Push It Along" (in which Weller sounds a dead ringer for, of all tortured souls, Barry Ryan), but absolutely with the song for his son, "Why Walk When You Can Run." One of his truest ballads - perhaps the truest since "English Rose" - Weller's voice reaches a pitch of passion and fear which we have never previously heard from him; he knows that his son's running off, running like the wind, even (and Weller manages to make that particular lyrical cliche sound as new as tomorrow); he knows he has to, and that he can never stop him or even reach him now, but still there's that scarcely suppressed heartbreak in his voice - "no turning back, no giving in" - he's growing and he's not going to listen and Weller is struck temporarily immobile by the dread of repeated futures, or no future, and where does that leave him, except to carry on as he and only he can carry on or be carried. A performance which the Weller of 30 or 20 or even eight years ago couldn't have envisaged - finally, his own "Wishing On A Star" - and one which, like most of the other tracks on 22 Dreams, can perhaps only make sense to those of us who have lived as long as he has, who have reached, or are reaching, that stage. Yes - he's in touch again, all right.