Of all the rock stars from Britain’s Class of ‘77, Paul Weller alone has retained his incandescence. Johnny Rotten rouses himself for an occasional Sex Pistols tour, Billy Idol does the oldies circuit, and only Joe Strummer has a decent excuse for not coming up with new material. Then there’s Weller. From his days leading New Wave giants The Jam, to the funk-soul brothers The Style Council, through his solo career, the kid from Woking has produced a body of work that’s remarkable as much for its diversity as for its consistency. His new record, Wake Up the Nation, is another strong collection. It’s tuneful as can be, but also sports traces of psychedelia, roots-rock and electronica. Recently, the no-nonsense but unquestionably affable Weller discussed his latest musical offering.
“I didn’t go into the studio this time with preconceived musical ideas, so much as a general feeling about the state of things. The album is a sort of reaction to radio. It’s just terrible in England right now. It’s so safe and corporate. These are the kind of songs I’d like to hear on the radio.”
Well, we can dream.
If today’s playlists were studded with the gems from Wake Up, adventurous listeners would have no complaints. From the rampaging opener “Moonshine,” which features Weller on piano (“kinda like Jerry Lee Lewis”), to the specter of Spector on “No Tears To Cry” (try imagining “Spanish Harlem” as house music), to the spooky skater’s waltz, “In Amsterdam,” the songwriter seems determined to shake listeners from their carefully cautious ways. The unsettling “Trees” is singularly fine. And has its, uh, roots in something real: the death last year of Weller’s beloved dad (and manager) John.
“When my dad was in the last stages, I went to visit him in a respite house. I began studying all the old ones there. Trying to imagine them as young, what their lives were like. One day, I started writing some lines about one of the women. It went, ‘Once I was a lover with beautiful long, brown hair.’ Some of the folks seemed so old, man, they were, like, fossilized. And some of them seemed like trees, just getting ready to be re-planted. I wrote this whole piece of prose about it. The producer, Simon Dine, read it and said I should set it to music. The song goes through a lot of movements, from rock to sort of trippy sections, with lots of overdubs. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like it.”
Talking about music that has inspired him lately, Weller mentions several names that show the breadth of his interests. He mentions the experimental, electronic band Broadcast, folk rockers Fleet Foxes, says he’s been checking out avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and then drops a rather astonishing choice: that American punk singer, Andy Williams.
“I saw him not long ago at the Albert Hall. He’s got to be about 80 and he still sounds amazing. The man can sing. And the tunes were great. At the end of the day, you can’t keep a good tune down.”
When asked how he manages to keep this and other albums so fresh and surprising, when so many contemporaries have settled into playing the hits, he says, “My main thing is, I just need to keep proving myself. For my sake and for the people listening. Plus, you’re only as good as your last record, you know.”
Well played. But if that is the case, Weller has a daunting task ahead of him. When your “last record” is as strong and strange as Wake Up the Nation, one can only wonder what the hell you do next time out.