I was recently in a record shop and heard a guy repeatedly tell this terrible pub quiz joke.
Q: Name this song: the clue is Jam Lead Singer, Jam Lead Singer, Jam Lead Singer
A: Summer Nights by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (Weller, Weller, Weller...geddit?!)
Three things were learnt that day:
Don't go that pub quiz
A bad joke does not benefit from repeated re-telling
Paul Weller is a national institution
And you can see why with Fat Pop (Vol 1). It's the Modfather's 16th solo album, or 27th if you include The Jam and The Style Council. It's a revelation, continuing his constant reinvention through his 45 year career.
For all the accusations that have been thrown at him for being dad-rock, he has thrown more creative curves than most bands I can think of, without ever losing his innate Englishness and that instant recognition it's him. From punk to mod to soul to jazz to house music back to mod to folk to hoary rock to trip hop to art school to funk back to pop and soul. And I am sure I have missed a few things. Really - Bowie aside, who else has covered so much ground and thrown their fanbase so many curves, but can still sell out massive arenas. My Ever Changing Moods really is his mantra.
His last album, On Sunset, was hailed as a fantastic come back (though had he really ever gone away?), but I was a bit "meh" to be honest. But Fat Pop (Vol 1) delivers the accolades that album didn't quite manage, and much more.
Yes, this is not his most experimental album. It’s a relaxed affair, mostly chilled soul, funk and folk, rather than an all-out rocker. But this is loose, playful, even funny, with the usual touchstones of Traffic, Curtis Mayfield, Ray Davies, but also more modern influences like Baxter Dury.
But every track is a potential single, which I don’t think he’s pulled off in years. Kicking off with Cosmic Fringes, a blast of synth bass and confident, if rather disengaged lyrics - “I don’t believe my luck when I see him in the mirror”. It’s proponent is wandering lost though, some imagined disenfranchisement affecting his mood. Weller may have just seen Tony Blair’s haircut when he wrote this…(it’s alarmingly similar to the Modfather’s own).
Shades Of Blue is superb – a soulful partnership with his daughter Leah (who sings and wrote this with him), while True is a kick ass call and response duet with Lia Metcalfe (of The Mysterines). Testify is jazzy R’N’B, with soulful backing vocals and flute. Cobwebs / Connections is acoustic Weller, more Hung Up than Wild Wood.
That Pleasure is Paul in What’s Going On mode, another in a long line of Weller protest songs. The music is a fab piece of Philadelphia soul but is accompanied by a slightly trite message – “Get up and get involved, it’s now or never. It’s time to make that change, get in this together, lose your hypocrisy”. It’s clunky and the words let down the tune – it’s the only wrong step here. Failed has a slowed down feel of Shout To The Top – it lacks the latter’s urgency, but it’s pacey and a stand out on a very strong album.
Still Glides the Stream, co-written with long time sideman and acolyte, Steve Craddock, closes the album. Its title is presumably inspired by Flora Thompson (who wrote a book of the same title as well as writing Lark Rise To Candleford). Both the book and the song and full of nostalgia and regret. It’s a dramatic ending with gentle acoustic guitar and swelling strings and Weller’s strongest vocal on this splendid album.
Weller continues to navigate a varied, occasionally jarring career – always modern, even when he is looking back. But I wouldn’t want to bet on what Fat Pop (Vol 2) will sound like - it will almost certainly not be what you expect..