“Blink and you just might miss it,” sang Paul Weller in 2005.
If one hasn’t been keeping up with Weller’s solo career lately, they may become easily overwhelmed by what he’s been up to lately. Between 2010 and 2020, the recording artist once anointed as “the Modfather” has released six studio albums (Seven if you include the Jawbone soundtrack). That’s not exactly Guided By Voices, but it’s still rather prolific for a 63-year-old pop veteran whom everyone believed had achieved artistic perfection before he broke up the Jam in 1982. With a legacy as secure as his, he can afford to slow down. Hell, he can stop altogether if he wants.
It wasn’t until I read Ian Snowball’s profile on Weller titled Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio that I understood what drives the man; access to a private studio and an endless string of collaborators. As long as Paul Weller has a playground for experimentation and is surrounded by enough chums off which to bounce ideas, we will continue to see new music from him that is not only vital sounding but could rank as some of his best. I can certainly make that case for 2015’s Saturns Pattern as others could easily do the same for any other recent release. Now, less than 12 months after On Sunset, Weller cracks open Fat Pop (Volume 1) for us all to hear and it’s no less vibrant than any music being made by anyone half his age.
The single “Shades of Blue” leads the pack, and its clockwork rhythm, bouncy McCartney-like piano, and vocal “ooh”s and in the background certainly make it an ideal choice for the first single. The lyrics sound certainly sound like they came from someone whose entire life has been road-tested: “Spend all your life / Just to find out / All that matters / Is close to you.” There’s probably wisdom enough in that, but he follows it all up with “The people you know / The things that you’re shown / Shape our views / The places you’ve been / To follow a dream / In shades of blue.” Fat Pop sure doesn’t begin this bright and sunny.
“Cosmic Fringes” kicks the door down with a riff, not from a guitar put from a synthesizer, pulsating to a key that could be major or minor while Weller lyrically sorts himself out. “A baby waiting to be born / A sheep that’s ready to be shorn / I’m a king in deathly throes / A lazy cock that never crows / An empty book that’s leather-bound / I’m a lost cause, never found.” The next cut, “True”, is even shorter and more to the point, full of stabbing guitar chords, a soulful saxophone, Weller’s voice heavily treated with reverb, and a guest vocal from Lia Metcalfe whose timbre stands too far apart from Weller’s to be a good match, let alone a great one. “True” is still a terrific little pop song, a potential hit just waiting to be picked up by someone who doesn’t care about Weller’s age or stylistic relevance.
In fact, Fat Pop is full of highlights. If you crave Weller’s soulful side, “Glad Times,” “That Pleasure,” and the title track practically ooze that urban, nocturnal feeling that has helped him make his name since the Style Council. For those seeking out Paul Weller, the singer-songwriter of pop music, you can get that via “Cobweb/Connections” and “Failed”, the latter of which could easily be covered by Noel Gallagher someday should he ever run out of his own material. He even dishes out a little Rolling Stones dirt with “Moving Canvas”, complete with sax, trumpet, and Hammond organ.
“Well, I don’t know / I thought home was in your heart / I didn’t know / That your heart was so apart.” The bright mood of Fat Pop starts to fade as it moves towards the end. “In Better Times” tries to have it both ways with lyrics that summon sadness and attempt to solve it, all while keeping up the tempo: “In better times, you will fly / Do all the things you wanna do / Not all the things that others want you to.” “Still Glides the Stream” wraps up the album with a promise to invest faith in our artistic creators, despite our collective misgivings: “The man who never was / Painted images of freedom / He never sold a lot / It wasn’t what his public wanted.” The artist prevails in a quiet storm of strings and piano, giving Weller a near-perfect backdrop to warn us to “Be careful with what you ignore / Look for greatness in the small / For the man who never was / Still knows what his public needed.”
Christel Loar’s review of Wake Up the Nation made a reference to Paul Weller’s “perennial songwriting prowess”, but I would go further and say that his whole enterprise is perennial. The writing, the collaborating, the execution, the minute recording choices, they all pop up out of the ground, again and again, every few years in the form of a lovely little album from Paul Weller. Fat Pop (Volume 1) is certainly no exception. Even if it doesn’t wind up being one’s favorite Paul Weller album, there’s no way these songs will be leaving your head without a fight.