Few artists could match the career that Paul Weller has enjoyed.
Alongside his bandmates in the Jam, Weller burst onto the scene in 1977 with the legendary debut single “In the City”. After a successful run, Weller decided he needed a change, so he left the mod punk of the Jam and slid into the blue-eyed soul and ’80s synth sheen of the Style Council. The end of the ’80s also saw the end of the Style Council and signaled yet another transformation for Weller as he found himself a solo artist for the first time in his career.
Over the next 30 years, Paul Weller established himself as one of the preeminent singers, songwriters, and performers in British rock history. Never one to follow a trend, Weller was usually leading the next sound. Following the success of his 1995 classic Stanley Road, Weller found himself as a lead influence on a whole new generation of bands led by Oasis and Blur.
When asked about the various changes in his career, from punk to soul, acoustic to guitar fuzz, Weller admits it comes from a selfish place, telling PopMatters that “I don’t want to repeat myself, which is inevitable at times if you’ve done this for a long time. But as much as possible, I try not to repeat what I’ve just done. I try to move on, take it someplace different. I really do it for myself, to be honest with you, and I just have to hope other people like it and come with it.” That quest for reinvention was the fuel behind his latest release, On Sunset.
The new record sees Weller take the soulful vocals and introspective lyrics that have become his trademark and lay them over new sounds to create a soundscape unlike anything in his decades-long career. Weller says he had a vague notion of what he wanted as he approached the writing process for the record, “I wanted it to be quite soulful sounding then but at the same time, I wanted to have an electronic edge in places as well.” The opening track, “Mirror Ball”, is the perfect example of this combination. Traditional guitars and his signature vocal are propelled by an electronic beat that immediately lets the listener know they are in for something unique.
In between 2018’s True Meanings and On Sunset, Weller performed two shows with an orchestra (released in 2019 as the live record Other Aspects). He talks of the “safety” he felt having a large number of musicians on stage with him. The impact of the orchestra is carried over to the new record as Weller experiments with lush orchestrations on tracks like “More”, which also features a vocal by French artist, as Weller favorite, Julie Gros.
Weller credits his intense love of music as the driving force to keep experimenting with new sounds and moving forward. On his relationship with music now, Weller says, “I probably have a greater appreciation of it now than when I was a kid. But nevertheless, the inspiration from it, from the time I can remember to now is immense. That alone makes me still want to make music. I want to see if I can be as good as some of the people that influenced me.”
While his focus on moving forward, Weller, as most of us do when we age, is starting to also look to the past for the first time in his career. His one-time partner in the Style Council, Mick Talbot, adds his signature Hammond organ to a few tracks while on others, like “Old Father Tyme”, see Weller using his lyrics to look back. While he is prepared to look back musically, he has no interest in career accolades such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, noting that “I’ve never given it a thought and I don’t know enough about it. I don’t need validating by anyone really. Those things don’t mean much to me, to be honest with you. I’m not being a killjoy or being miserable. I just don’t get awards.”
Even for an artist of Weller’s stature, releasing a record in a pandemic can be a risky undertaking. Weller regrets that all summer touring is canceled, and the UK tour scheduled for October will most likely be canceled as well. It’s not all bad news, however. The pandemic downtime has been spent beginning the writing process for a new record, “I’ve had so much free time that I’ve started writing, so I’ve probably got half an album’s worth of tunes. I’m half thinking of putting out a record next year as well.”
Until that time, however, On Sunset will give fans a glimpse into both the past and future of Paul Weller.
Photo: Nicole Nodland / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media