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ALBUM REVIEW: PAUL WELLER – ON SUNSET (POLYDOR)

The venerable Modfather refuses to stand still on spectacular, genre-defying 15th solo album **** Four stars

In an ideal world, fanbases would be unconditional in their support of their favourite artists. They would embrace every new stylistic development, every artistic curveball and change of direction. If their favourite band suddenly decided to make an avant garde-jazz-dub-fusion album, that fanbase should happily celebrate that urge to experiment. Isn’t that how true fans should behave?

Of course, that very rarely happens – just consider the long and varied career of Brit-rock legend Paul Weller. For every unexpected artistic development – splitting The Jam to form the The Style Council; eschewing the trad-rock of his early solo work in favour of leftfield experimentation – Weller’s fanbase haven’t always been willing to embrace that change. For every fan who applauds his decision to flex his creative muscles, there’s always an equivalent Fred Perry-clad, mullet-sporting fan ranting about how “Weller’s old stuff was better.”

Not that Weller is in any way moved by those latter remarks. Indeed, on the evidence of this, his fifteenth solo album, Weller clearly has no intention of appeasing those more conservative-minded factions of his fanbase. On Sunset, released this week after several COVID 19-incurred delays, very much picks up the thread of his acclaimed ‘trilogy’ of late-2000s/early-2010s albums: 22 Dreams, Wake Up The Nation and Sonik Kicks. Those three albums, of course, marked a significant turning point – one in which Weller abandoned his rockier, trad leanings to pursue a more eclectic, genre-straddling path. Firmly vindicated, the reviews were universally positive and Weller sounded like a man re-energised.

If those energy levels sagged somewhat following that trilogy (his last record, 2018’s True Meanings was a more rootsy, acoustic-driven affair), On Sunset proves that Weller – at the grand old age of 62 – is back to his eclectic, explorative best. More importantly, he’s still managing to marry those quixotic tendencies to strong, robust melodies and a unifying album concept.

Just take the album’s opening track, ‘Mirror Ball’, for example. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it’s a stupendously ambitious affair composed of shimmering synths, ambient soundscapes and sharp tempo changes – the beatific lovechild of Beach Boys and Broadcast.

There’s plenty more sonic strangeness where that came from. ‘Equanimity’, which features Jim Lea of Slade on violin, is a bouncy music hall-style number in the mould of The Kinks. ‘Earth Beat’ blends futurist funk with Delia Derbyshire-style electronics, while ‘Rockets’, an impassioned rant about social mobility, swells from Bowie-ish acoustic ballad into a soaring, string-soaked crescendo.

The album’s freewheeling, eclectic spirit is reflected in its wonderful array of special guests. There’s appearances from London-based R&B artist Col3trane, Le SuperHomard’s Julie Gros, indie-folk trio The Staves and, on the meditative soul ballad ‘Village’, there’s a reunion with his old Style Council bandmate Mick Talbot who provides silky Hammond organ.

Very much a future-facing album in the sonic stakes, it’s only in the lyrical department where Weller allows himself time to reflect. He’s spoken about how turning 60 has forced him to take stock, and On Sunset is sprinkled with moments of reverie and remembrance. Most poignantly, on ‘Old Father Tyme’, a stark and honest reflection on ageing, he sings: “Time will become you, you will become time.”

On paper, On Sunset might sound like a tough album to digest. It’s credit, then, to Weller’s impeccable songcraft and stylistic nous that he can pull off a record like this. Bouncing from neo-soul and Krautrock to disco-funk and electronic abstraction, its ten tracks always have a clear sense of purpose and direction. And Paul Weller, though never fond of comfort zones, still remains a most comforting captain for this restless, fascinating musical odyssey. Weller fans – the open-minded ones, at least – will be richly rewarded.

On Sunset is released via Polydor on Friday July 3.

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