By 2002, Paul Weller was roughly a decade into an impressive solo career. The former leader of the Jam and the Style Council was able to sustain a massive following under his own name. His self-titled debut album saw him creating soulful psychedelia. Meanwhile, subsequent albums (Wild Wood, Stanley Road, Heavy Soul) played with everything from Beatlesque pop to noisy garage rock, and 2000’s daring Heliocentric even made advances toward experimentalism and prog.
That’s why Illumination – Weller’s sixth solo album, released in 2002 and now available on vinyl for the first time – is a slightly frustrating head-scratcher. Sure, it contains many elements that made the previous five albums wonderful, but he seemed to be treading water here. It’s an enjoyable album, filled with good-to-great songs, but Weller doesn’t move the needle. It came on the heels of Days of Speed, the 2001 acoustic live album that saw Weller coming to terms with his past by incorporating songs from his entire career into a vibrant setlist. It seemed like anything was possible. If he set out to make an album of warm, comforting songs that occasionally hit moments of brilliance, Illumination was a success.
The chiming, Byrds-like folk that Weller assayed in the past is present from the very beginning, as the opening track “Going Places” mixes mid-tempo acoustic guitar and simmering organ over lyrics of love and friendship. “We’re going places,” he sings. “Never thought we could / Through all kinds of changes / And still our hearts beat closer, more and more.” In “Leafy Mysteries”, a similar vibe continues, but it’s bolstered by a particularly strong vocal from Weller – warm, weathered, and deeply soulful. But Weller hasn’t thoroughly mellowed: “A Bullet for Everyone” chugs along with a tight shuffle and an anti-war sentiment that may not be as eloquent as his fiery Jam days, but still packs a heavy punch. Longtime sidemen like guitarist Steve Cradock and drummer Steve White are the secret weapons on this song and elsewhere.
Weller’s commitment to contemporary soul hasn’t been abandoned at all on Illumination. The linchpin of the single “It’s Written in the Stars” is an irresistible brass sample that runs through the song and gives it a modern, funky edge. But ever the chameleon, he also revisits some of his previous experimental touches on songs like “Spring (At Last)”, a droning, Eastern-tinged instrumental that opens the album’s second side with generous support from guest musician Aziz Ibrahim. Songs like the fuzzy, vaguely psych-rock “One x One” and the sobering, melodic folk of “Bag Man” have Weller cherry-picking his influences wisely, and still staying somewhat within his comfort zone.
Weller’s harder edge resurfaces in the home stretch of Illumination, with the edgy strut of “Call Me No. 5” has him duetting with Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics (whose raspy vocals blend nicely with Weller’s soulful pipes) and the positively anthemic “Standing Out in the Universe”, complete Carleen Anderson’s backing vocals and a good old-fashioned fake fade-out. The sparse, acoustic guitar of the title track ends the album on a sober, reflective note, with vague psychedelic leanings predicting some of Weller’s future endeavors.
Paul Weller has made many albums since Illumination and his career, at the age of 63, shows little to no signs of slowing down. Recently, he’s gone full tilt with experimental ideas on albums like 22 Dreams and On Sunset, while also pulling back the throttle with gentler, acoustic-themed works like True Meanings. Illumination may not be a top-five Weller solo release, but for an artist of his caliber, even the albums that don’t necessarily make hugely important artistic statements are still well worth revisiting.