Paul Weller’s True Meanings was released on September 14th and
is his fourteenth solo album; but impressively it is the
twenty sixth studio album of his career if his time with The Jam and The Style
Council are included.
He has travelled a long way musically since first helping shake-up the charts as an 18 year old in 1977 with The Jam’s punk-influenced In the City, by passing through R&B, pop, bluesy soul and, even, deep house. Now, just having turned 60, the Modfather has taken another radical and surprising turn by exploring more bucolic and folky tones, with his acoustic guitars, probably his Gibson J-45 and his Guild Orpheum Jumbo, backed by orchestration. It is also the most collaborative album he has ever made. ‘I wrote it to keep my audience interested,’ he says.
And it certainly seems to be doing that; as I write the album had not quite toppled Eminem from the top of the UK album charts, but it is biting at its heels.
True Meanings was recorded in not much more than three weeks in his own Black Barn Studio, with artists such as Noel Gallagher, Rod Argent of the Zombies and folk giant Martin Carthy popping in from time to time to record their parts. The orchestration was then added afterwards.
Weller croons more on this album than any other and in this way he couldn’t help but remind me of Elvis Costello, who also emerged from the punk movement but later embraced Burt Bacharach songs and had a hit with his version of Charles Aznavour’s She. “In the last few years I have actually learned how to sing properly – I can sing so much better now,” Weller says. The truth is that Weller has always had a soft spot for lighter tunes and delicate textures – in songs like All Mod Cons’ ‘English Rose’ for example, or This is the Modern World’s ‘Tonight at Noon’. But this is the first time he has made a full album in that style.
The album was sparked by the string-soaked song Gravity, which was written over five years ago but never found a home, until now. However, the album itself kicks off with the far stronger The Soul Searchers, a lovely catchy number that was actually written by Villagers’ singer Conor O’Brien, and features Rod Argent on Hammond organ.
Glide finds Weller passing “through a portal to my youth” to “see the memories unfold”, and employing acoustic guitars that blend into pastoral strings in the instrumental section. That is followed by Mayfly, which is beautifully soulful song that suddenly shifts uptempo with some wonderful lead guitar from Steve Brookes (from early Jam days). “Let me feel the same way,” Weller sings in reflective mood.
Weller explains that Old Castles is about the classic theme of a“greedy old king who doesn’t care about his subjects” and who then watches “everything crumble around him.” This unfortunately is followed by a few weaker tracks such as What would he say?, Bowie, Wishing Well, and Aspects, which again find Weller looking back on his life path.
Come along represents a welcome upturn and features folk icons Martin Carthy (picked guitar) and Danny Thompson (double bass); both artists who Weller enormously admires. This lyrically flirtatious summer song finds Weller wondering “what is going on underneath that dress” as he attempts to talk the object of his desire into having a fling with him.
The last tracks Moving on and White Horses both deal with major life changes; with the latter dealing with themes of parenthood and family. White Horses, in particular, builds to a rousing climax that carries real emotional weight.
Weller’s personal journey "to find true meanings, and patterns in things" (as he sings on one track) has produced a mixed bag of an album that finds him reflecting on his life as he enters his sixth decade. In his own words, and refreshingly from this reviewer’s perspective, he is “taking stock at 60 - but not for too long as it is too mind bending”.