Ya couldn’t say surprised… Unlike other vital rock’n’roll veterans who habitually leap from style to guise as if turning the pages of a catalogue, Paul Weller has marked his progress with clearly linear — if unique — logic. As the angry young man grew to adulthood inside the modpunk cocoon of the Jam, his tastes ran (as the mods’ had) toward American soul music, specifically the easy flowing melodic artistry of Curtis Mayfield and the preternatural cool of Marvin Gaye. By the time the Jam closed up shop — firmly ensconced as one of Britain’s all-time hitmakers — at the end of ’82, the singer/guitarist had turned down the heat enough to segue smoothly into the continental soul-pop pretensions of the suave Style Council.
Over the course of a handful of albums that got him to 1990, Weller (partnered with ex-Merton Parkas keyboardist Mick Talbot) lost, in succession, his connection to rock, his creative judgment and his sense of humor. As of the Style Council’s 1988 swan song, Confessions of a Pop Group, frustrated political activism and god knows what else (he did turn 30 that year) had left him cynical and disgusted, the leading contender to succeed Kingsley Amis as England’s angriest curmudgeon.
Weller took a couple of years to regain his composure (a stint leading the Paul Weller Movement produced only one 45; he also did some work with the Young Disciples) and then launched a solo career free of the Style Council’s grand illusions and all the negative ions he had built up. As he reports in “Uh Huh Oh Yeh,” the song that begins Paul Weller, “I took a trip down boundary lane / Try an’ find myself again / At least a part I left somewhere.” Later on, he identifies the piece of himself that needed to be left behind: “Bitterness rising — you gotta shake those feelings off.” That the album sounds a lot like the transitional point between Traffic and Steve Winwood’s subsequent solo work is fair enough; the brightening of Weller’s countenance needs the warm support of music this cozy. Shaping up as a sensitive pop romantic comfortably using old-school soul as his contemporary building blocks, Weller settles into the material like a calm patriarch in a favorite old chair. As Steve White (drums) and Jacko Peake (sax, flute) fetch his slippers and pipe, the kinder, gentler auteur reflects on his life and love with effortlessly engaging craft. (Incidentally, half of “Kosmos,” the 12-minute track that ends the album, is the maddening sound of a manual turntable popping on a record’s end groove.)
Weller’s upbeat mood didn’t last long. The equivocal and indistinctly produced Wild Wood sucks him halfway back into doubt and discontent, and the music reflects that. While still rooted in elements of syncopation and organ-plus-horns instrumentation, the lonely “Sunflower” and “Can You Heal Us (Holy Man)” are tougher and less finespun than anything on Paul Weller. Elsewhere, the remote and unappealing album pulls clean away from soul. The title track, “Foot of the Mountain” and “Country” all allude to folky acoustic solitude; the anxious “Has My Fire Really Gone Out?” and the merely unsettled “5th Season” force out thick Bands of rustic rock. By the finish, when he fires off a scrabbly little guitar solo in “Hung Up,” it’s evident that Weller’s balance mechanism needs another readjustment.
Most of the material on Live Wood does come from the preceding album, but the four shows recorded between December ’93 and April ’94 also yield songs from Paul Weller (including “Bull-Rush,” here given a “Magic Bus” coda). Performing with a quartet, Weller does simple justice to his creations, putting himself into the mix with determined enthusiasm.
Back in a stock-taking mood, Weller opens the firmly focused Stanley Road with “The Changingman,” a song that acknowledges his ongoing instability (“I’m the changingman- built on shifting sands…What I can’t be today I can be tomorrow”) amid a hail of caustic electric guitar, the most aggressive playing he’s put on record since surrendering it a dozen years earlier. When the self-appraisal turns corrosive (in the next song, he’s “a porcelain god that shatters when it falls”), Weller wisely turns the spotlight away, covering the old voodoo-casting “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and then letting memories sweep over him in the title track, “Time Passes…” and “Whirlpools’ End.” Following a fairly stable path of soulful rock (put it this way: Joe Cocker’s voice could come roaring out of the speakers over these tracks without inciting any eyebrow action here), the album skips wind instruments but employs a contingent of stars (Steve Winwood, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, Mick Talbot, ex-Blow Monkey Dr. Robert, Young Disciple Mark Nelson) to return Weller to a reassuringly solid middle ground. It’s unnerving to think that Woking’s most famous teenager is now a settled, mature family man able to look back with ponderous consideration, but Weller faces up to it manfully and makes music that befits his station.