[9 July 2014]
In 1998, Paul Weller, the revered singer-songwriter and new wave British icon, released a greatest hits compilation entitled Modern Classics. This compilation made sense. It traced a thread through Weller album tracks and singles of the ‘90s, when a winning combination of bucolic acoustia and rumbustious white soul/blues had made Weller more popular and credible than at any point since his early ‘80s heyday as the leader of the Jam.
Modern Classics did also accidentally reinforce the point that Weller’s growing liking for Humble Pie-style blues fire-ups was starting to go down a cul-de-sac, especially when his gift for melody deserted him. 1997’s Heavy Soul album (the title was no coincidence) was a case in point.
And so to More Modern Classics, which basically deploys the approach of its 1998 predecessor, collecting what are judged to be the highlights of the Weller oeuvre of the last decade-plus, from the 2000 album Heliocentric to the 2014 single “Brand New Toy”. But that’s where the similarities of the two ‘best of” compilations end. More Modern Classics lacks the common thread to unite the compilation into a listening experience which makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This is why.
Paul Weller is the male Madonna in terms of his ability to reinvent himself. The turning point of his last decade was 2008’s 22 Dreams, Weller’s “white album”, a double LP epic sprawl of hazy swirling psychedelia, simple love songs, creamy soul and damned effective pop tunes like “Push It Along”. Weller threw the kitchen sink at it, reached out of his rockist comfort zone and embraced an urgent new sense of boldness. Perhaps galvanized by a new romance in his life, here was someone who had rediscovered his mojo, all the more creditable as he approached his 50th birthday. Just as importantly, this album showed that Weller could still write a tune that cut to the quick.
Weller turned 22 Dreams into a trilogy, following up with Wake Up the Nation in 2010 and Sonik Kicks in 2012, which presented further eclectic collections, albeit with slightly diminishing returns and a sense that he was at times trying too hard to stay hip and “current”. This pattern suggests the feeling that Weller might now be at another turning point where he feels the need for reinvention. If the singles “Flame-Out!” (a buzzing post-punk toe-tapper) and “Brand New Toy” (a ‘70s time-for-tea sing-along) which conclude More Modern Classics are anything to go by, he might be moving in some interesting new directions.
More Modern Classics is therefore a plausible time-filler, pending substantial new material (and there will be some as Weller’s work ethic has always been admirable). But its inability to coalesce around the common unifying thrust and direction which a summary “best of” ought to provide, means that it’s undermined by the overall eclecticism of Weller’s approach. If you want a better demonstration of the latter, you should turn to 22 Dreams instead.
There are of course several individual stand-outs. The joyous “No More Tears to Cry” from Wake Up the Nation is the rolling ‘60s hit Scott Walker would have died for. Weller’s version of Rolls Royce’s “Wishing on a Star” showcases a delicate arrangement and a sensitive, touching vocal, an attribute he’s used too rarely in recent times. The little-heard 2006 single “Wild Blue Yonder” carries some scorching guitar and bears the stamp of his regular collaborator, Ocean Colour Scene’s Steve Cradock.
Heliocentric and Illumination, albums from the early ‘00s when Weller was still stuck in the comfort zone, are fortunately under-represented. Not surprisingly, 22 Dreams, with five tracks, is the most prominent album on this collection. Paul Weller knew he struck gold there. Let’s hope this true songwriting great can, at least one more time, rouse himself again as he considers his next move.