Considering his range of influence and scope of talent, it’s not surprising to be reminded that Paul Weller has been a fixture of the music world for roughly four decades. As the leader of the punk trio the Jam in the ‘70s and the primary brains behind the pop/funk/soul outfit the Style Council in the ‘80s, Weller has continued to hone his skills as an acclaimed and eclectic solo artist since his full-length debut album in 1992. In his solo years he’s mined nearly every conceivable genre, from pastoral folk (Wild Wood) to Beatlesque soul (Stanley Road) to fuzzy guitar funk (Heavy Soul). In recent years he’s broadened his horizons even further, with sharp experimental left turns like the vaguely prog Heliocentric, the dizzying, all-over-the-map 22 Dreams and 2015’s playfully buzzy Saturns Pattern.
Through it all, however, one thing Paul Weller has yet to add to his impressive resume is a film score/soundtrack. Until now. When British actor Johnny Harris — a fan of Weller’s –- approached the musician a few years ago to work on a soundtrack for a boxing film that at the time only consisted of a script, Weller agreed to do so. The film became Jawbone, and the accompanying soundtrack is a welcome new chapter to an already deep and varied music career.
One of the most surprising aspects of this soundtrack –- besides the fact that he’s tackling it at this late stage in his career -– is how effortlessly and seamlessly Weller leaps into the genre. It opens with a massively ambitious instrumental, the 21-minute “Jimmy/Blackout”. While Weller has occasionally flirted with instrumentals and psychedelia, this particular opus is a deep dive into ambient and musique concrète genres, mixing soothing synthesizer beds with guitar distortion, electric piano noodling, muted sound effects, and Weller’s haunted vocalizing towards the track’s end. It would be easy to dismiss this as Weller attempting to mimic Brian Eno, but the soothing ambiance is mixed with harsh edges that are more reminiscent of the soundtrack work Cliff Martinez has written for the films of Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn. Again, Weller has messed with this type of thing on and off for years, but it’s still a pleasant shock to hear it executed full-on, and at such an expert level.
For those who prefer the Modfather in a more traditional mood, there’s a pair of acoustic numbers that mesh nicely with the moodier instrumentals. “The Ballad of Jimmy McCabe” is Weller in folk garb, singing with depth and sincerity about the film’s lead character. “I’ll beat my head ‘til dawn / Figure out what I’m running from / Only then will I find peace in me.“ A working class boxer down on his luck seems like the perfect subject for Weller’s pen, and the character slips easily into the song’s lyrics. Likewise, “Bottle” is another solo acoustic song that channels the depths of this tortured character. Again, these songs are a respite from the others that surround them and are notable reminders of Weller’s skill at writing thoughtful, touching folky songs.
The remaining instrumental songs are more reined in than “Jimmy / Blackout,” but mostly in terms of length. They’re shorter but retain focus and maintain the deep spirit of experimentation that seems to be creeping into Weller’s music more and more in recent years. “Jawbone” is a druggy, slow motion funk groove combining plenty of psychedelic touches with bits of film dialogue. “Jawbone Training” is anchored by a jazzy, bebop drum beat with groaning guitar feedback over the top (along with more film dialogue). I haven’t seen the film, but I can imagine a potent boxing montage matching up to the track.
“Man On Fire” continues the moody ambiance that opens the soundtrack, but it’s more compact and not as rough around the edges. Plaintive piano gives the song more of an aura of sadness. The closing “End Fight Sequence” contains more of the adventurous guitar and layered effects that we’ve come to expect from this unique soundtrack, and the stacked sounds create a dark vibe that invites repeated listening.
Jawbone isn’t likely to shoot to the top of a fan’s “favorite Paul Weller albums” list anytime soon — the stuff he does regularly is far more effective. But as a debut soundtrack, this is an extremely strong effort, and with Weller continuing to push boundaries farther and farther as his career progresses, we can probably expect a lot more of this kind of thing from the man. In the meantime, his next album, A Kind of Revolution, is due in May. It’s a good time to be a Paul Weller fan.