Fast on the heels of the success and acclaim for 2008’s 22 Dreams, Paul Weller’s 10th solo release, Wake Up the Nation, once again illustrates not only his perennial songwriting prowess, but also his incredible staying power amidst artists for whom influence is sporadic and brief at best. “I’m schooled in the test of time,” Weller sings on the roaring opener, “Moonshine”, and it’s clear he’s learned his lessons well after 30-odd years in the music business.
Although his skill as a songwriter is unparalleled, it’s Weller’s willingness to seek out new sounds and switch things up time and again, both in his career as a whole and on individual albums, that makes his work so intriguing. Indeed, Wake Up the Nation may have less in common with its immediate predecessors than it does with the Jam. “Moonshine” sets a frantic pace as an introductory burst of feedback gives way to rollicking piano, charmingly unrestrained vocals from Weller and the Move’s Bev Bevan on drums.
The title track is another straight-up rocker. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Weller’s opinions on the blessings and curses afforded us by modern technology. Of course, it’s understandable if you happen to miss that part, which he has called “political with a small ‘p'”, on the first few listens, because it’s the horns, harmonies and harmonium that make this track so memorable.
“No Tears to Cry” slows things down a bit, sounding for all the world like a classic early ’60s ballad complete with a Spector-ish strings. Legendary drummer Clem Cattini (who has played on everything from Dusty Springfield singles to T-Rex records) is the special guest on this gorgeous song, and even though it’s scarcely more than two minutes, it’ll stay with you for a long time.
Only four of Wake Up the Nation‘s 16 tracks exceed the three-minute mark. In fact, the next three all clock in under two minutes. “Fast Car/Slow Traffic” features Weller’s former Jam bandmate Bruce Foxton on bass. His basic, bouncy, irresistible style is instantly recognizable as the rhythm races along while Weller shouts about being stuck. “Andromeda” takes a turn toward the psychedelic. It’s one of those universally catchy melodies that could be called anthemic if it weren’t for its aforementioned brevity.
“Andromeda” fades into “In Amsterdam”, a trippy travelogue of an impressionistic instrumental that acts as sort of an incidental before Weller returns to heavier sounds with the reverb-drenched “She Speaks” and droning “Find the Torch, Burn the Plans”, which might have some of the most uplifting lyrics on the album, as well as a properly anthemic “sha la la” sing-along chorus. “Aim High” gets a little glam high-gloss as Weller goes all falsetto funky, something he apparently hasn’t done in quite time (and, I think, something he should do more often).
“Trees” is a bit like an album in itself. Producer/co-writer Simon Dine and Weller weave together five distinct sections, which could have been separate songs in another incarnation. First there’s a striding, strutting bit of R&B, then there’s a carnival-like slice of music hall followed by a shot of punk power which shifts into a backward-effects-laden march, and finally it’s just Paul Weller at the piano singing for his father, who passed away in 2009. “Someone take me back to the fields / where I need to be / so once again I can stand tall / and feel, once more, a tree”, he sings.
The tone changes once again, feeling rather abrupt this time, though it’s surely meant to. “Grasp and Still Connect” is a swift bit of blues rock lamenting the woman who doesn’t want him, while “Whatever Next” is another instrumental, this time including snippets of songs heard elsewhere on the album. “7&3 is the Strikers Name” is a relentless assault of a song boasting My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, as well as venomous references to the royals and another “sha la lala lala la la” chorus.
“Up the Dosage” has a glam disco vibe, but there’s something harder in there as well, possibly alluded to in the title. It’s not Bowie’s brand of glam or new millennium variety disco. If anything, it’s a little like Bowie-produced Iggy Pop. Those sounds are in there too, but it’s all about the muscle in the bass line and Weller’s confident delivery. It’s one of the best of the rockers here.
“Pieces of a Dream” sounds much like the title implies it would, with swirling, drifting piano parts. Unlike most dreams, however, this is firmly anchored by an angular guitar riff repeated hypnotically while Weller sings, “Can’t put my finger on it / this feeling’s captured me / like pieces of a dream”. “Two Fat Ladies” closes this magnificent set, with a scorcher that apparently was written on the spot in the studio. Weller shouts non sequiturs and plays bass while Barrie Cadogen (Little Barrie), on guitar, leads the band through its paces at a clip echoing, and expanding upon, the energy at the beginning of the record. With that, Wake Up the Nation comes full circle. Weller, thankfully, continues to explore.