The question has been asked countless times over the years: why in the world is Paul Weller — a legendary singer/songwriter for four decades who sells out arenas in his home country of Great Britain — relegated to mere cult status in the United States? It’s particularly puzzling when you consider the fact that Weller regularly infuses his stellar collection of original material with nods to American R&B, soul and funk. There’s seemingly nothing off-putting about anything he does — it’s all infectious, impeccably written and passionately performed.
It’s actually nod a bad situation for us American Weller fans. He tends to play relatively intimate venues on the semi-rare occasion that he comes to the States, which makes experiencing his typically electrifying gigs that much more enjoyable, whether he’s revisiting chestnuts from his days with pioneering ‘70s mod punks the Jam, reliving the ‘80s with selections from his soul/jazz outfit the Style Council or introducing fans young and old to selections from his 25-plus year solo career. Nosebleed seats are a non-issue.
I see every new Weller album as an opportunity to convert a new fan. His 13th solo album, A Kind Revolution, shows the Modfather continuing down the path of recent albums like 2012’s Sonik Kicks and 2015’s Saturns Pattern: solo entries that manage to combine a healthy streak of experimentalism with funky earworms and elegant pop song smarts.
Is A Kind Revolution Weller’s response to living in the age of Trump and Brexit? Perhaps, although he’s reluctant to refer to it as a “political” album. It avoids specifics, and Weller has gone on record as saying it’s more “pro-human” than anything else. “A revolution of kindness” is what Weller’s hoping for during these turbulent times, and his new album provides the ultimate soundtrack.
In addition to current touring band members Andy Crofts, Ben Gordelier, Steve Cradock and Steve Pilgrim, Weller’s latest album also includes a small, eclectic selection of special guests. Legendary soul singers PP Arnold and Madeleine Bell add backup vocals to the bright, danceable soul strut of the opening track, “Woo Se Mama”. Progressive rock vet Robert Wyatt contributes trumpet and vocals to the brittle funk of the Style Council-esque “She Moves With the Fayre” (perhaps a form of payment for Weller appearing on Wyatt’s 1997 album Shleep). One the most interesting guest spots on the album is that of Boy George, who shares vocal duties with Weller on the hypnotic, groove-oriented “One Tear” (speaking of grooves, A Kind Revolution is refreshingly danceable. Throw it on at your next house party and watch the guests throw back their libations and turn your living room into a dancefloor — Paul would likely approve).
Weller’s wish for the “kind revolution” he speaks of is sometimes telegraphed subtly; other times, not so much. One of the more emotive moments on A Kind Revolution comes in the form of “The Cranes Are Back”, a raw, gospel-infused ballad that offers hope and optimism among the battered sociopolitical landscape. “Tell ‘em that the cranes are back,” Weller emotes in his trademark gruff, soulful shout. “There ain’t no chains on my back / There’s only joy / That freedom brings.” The kindness takes on a more personal approach in the anthemic, Beatlesque “Long Long Road”,with wistful piano and strings giving the track a “Let It Be” flavor while Weller speaks lovingly of the road leading to his current domestic bliss: “In the times too far to you / In the places I once knew / And every footstep that I’ve taken / Was just one step I took to you.”
But 40 years after the release of the first Jam album, Weller — who turns 59 later this month — hasn’t gone completely gooey and sentimental on us. The snarling, angular art punk of “Nova” recalls Berlin-era Bowie. The bluesy strut of “The Satellite Kid” allows Weller to show the teeth of his earlier, more menacing Jam days. One of the more oddly satisfying tracks, “Hopper” — an ode to legendary painter Edward Hopper — is a fractured psych-pop gem that recalls Ray Davies at his most baroque. Weller’s incorporation of blues, punk, soul and British Invasion power pop all within the span of 10 tracks and 43 minutes keeps his healthy sense of eclecticism intact. With beautiful, ambitious albums like the moodily psychedelic Heliocentric and the sprawling, conceptual 22 Dreams, Weller has experienced a few minor moments of self-indulgence, but on A Kind Revolution he manages to rein it all in quite admirably.
With a long, varied career that’s managed to dip into nearly every conceivable style with great ease, Weller insists on looking forward (don’t count on a Jam reunion happening, ever), with his music taking more and more chances and conceding less and less to the whims of the industry. A Kind Revolution is a vital, confident new entry in the catalog of a man who could very easily retire but still has too much music to share.