Monday, May 18, 2015

Mojo still working: Paul Weller's Saturns Pattern

When the late James Brown was handing himself titles like "The Godfather of Soul", "Soul Brother Number 1", "Mr. Dynamite" and "The Minister of Super-Funk" (in much the same way as Idi Amin, who made himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, Victoria Cross", and, of course, "King of Scotland") - the only sobriquet that could be questioned was "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business".

Not that Brown lacked the work ethic to justify the description, but it would have been hard to prove, given that any one of a number of stand-up comedians, singer-songwriters, film and TV extras and, of course, Michael Caine, could mount a serious challenge to the description. Even the now-dear departed BB King averaged up to 300 shows a year well into his 80s.

However, we're not here to debate the industry of entertainers at large, but instead give regard to Saturns Pattern - incredibly, the 35th album to be released by or involving the current Hardest Working (or Woking) Man in Show Business, Paul Weller. Just think of that: 35 albums - including 12 under his own name post-Jam/Style Council. That is, by any stretch of the imagination, prodigious.

In 2004, though, the covers album Studio 150 suggested an easing up on the creativity. Faithful, but not particularly inspiring versions of the soul classic Wishing On A Star, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Mornng Rain and even All Along The Watchtower made many question Weller's career path at the start of his fourth decade in the business. There was talk of writer's block, tabloid whispers about his lifestyle, and sundry other diversions from what what should have been the discussion, about one of Britain's most consistent artists.

While All Is Now, featuring the delightfully rambunctious From The Floorboards Up, suggested that Weller's mojo was back, it was 2008's 22 Dreams that suggested - no, insisted - that whatever had been holding him back had been well and truly exorcised, delivering a deluge of expression, experimentation and unrestricted avante garde.

Since then, the albums have come - relatively speaking - thick and fast, each one pushing at the notions of what the so-called Modfather should be doing. Because no-one and nothing can or will dictate what Weller will commit to record.

Hippy-dippy psychedelic woozeouts? Fill yer boots. Ray Davies-nodding stompers? 'Ave some. Gentle, Laurel Canyon-esque ballads? Be our guest. Although you'd never guess it, given his famously stoney expression (which always reminds me of De Niro), the nine tracks of Saturns Pattern suggests a Paul Weller having fun. 

There is a striking ease to it: songs like Phoenix recalling long hot summer soul boy days (and Dusk Til Dawn on the Deluxe Edition brings back memories of The Style Council's Down The Seine); White Skies, the album's opener, kicks in with eviscerating guitar and distorted vocal without so much as a by-your-leave; and These City Streets harks back to the gentle white soul of Remember How We Started on Weller's solo debut, an album which, like its mega-selling follow-up Stanley Road underlined his remarkable ability to combine tone, texture and melody without either selling out to mainstream pop, while remaining totally faithful to the cause. And then there's the title track, which sups from Weller's original source, The Small Faces, with its rinkly-tinkly piano and carefree giddiness (so carefree Weller clearly wasn't bothered by the heinous titular omission of a possessive apostrophe...).

Weller doesn't stand still, and I don't just mean from the propensity of his output, but from his seemingly restless desire to expand and explore, to mix it up and try this and try that. Take In The Car... for example: bluesy acoustic guitars, bottleneck slide electric guitars - instruments you would struggle to associate with the younger Weller - are blended together with splashes of psychedelic Hammond organ, providing solid evidence that this 56 year-old (he turns 57 next Monday) refuses to adhere to any conformity of expectation.

It's always possible that Paul Weller will, one day, produce a dud. A real stinker. He could so easily descend into self-parody, or head off, Spinal Tap-like, into the realms of jazz-rock experimentation, or reinvent himself, sort of, as a Neil Young tribute act.

But on current evidence, there's little to no danger. Saturns Pattern is, like it's most recent predecessors, another solid sleeper lying across the railway line of Paul Weller's solid career trajectory. OK, a convoluted analogy, but you know what I mean. 

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