Geek obsession: Paul Weller
Why it’s daunting: The punchline Paul Weller has been dragging around for more than 30 years is this: Despite the fact that he’s been a seismic hitmaker in England for decades, he’s barely registered on American ears. The reason often cited for this disparity is the A-word: anglocentrism. Sound specious? It is. After all, Weller was at the height of his popularity in the early ’80s, at a time when a full-scale, new-wave British Invasion was taking place. And if anything, his songs with The Jam, The Style Council, and currently as a solo artist are accessible and universal—and, unlike most of his peers, pretty much timeless.
Granted, Weller has been called The Modfather, and he almost singlehandedly revived a sort of rousing (yet no less self-lacerating) British cultural pride in the late ’70s—just as punk was doing its best to trash such sentimentality. But even the most myopic American should be able to take the long view. Weller’s discography is full of aching love songs, screeds against inequity, and celebrations of the rich lineage of rock and soul. (Yeah, there’s also a tune or two about London.) The fact remains, though, that his oeuvre is a sprawling one, and there’s a lot of output of varying quality to comb through. It doesn’t help that some of his best songs—like his first chart-topper, The Jam’s ironically anti-populist 1980 anthem, “Going Underground”—never appeared on a studio album. Even his catalog of greatest-hits collections is a rambling mess, another dubious mark of distinction that shows just how perennially marketable he remains in his homeland.
Possible gateway: The Jam, Snap!
Why: Normally it’s a bit of a copout to recommend a best-of package as a gateway. But The Jam’s Snap!—released in 1983, just a year after Weller walked out on the trio—is one of those rare anthologies that has enough consistency, character, and brilliant non-album tracks to be considered an essential record in its own right. But Snap! has a lot more going for it than excellent music. It starts with the band’s debut single—“In The City,” a Who-meets-Sex Pistols rallying cry released at the height of the punk boom in ’77—and ends with its 1982 swan song, “Beat Surrender,” a horn-spiked homage to ’60s soul. Between those bookends lie 27 cuts of the most superb songwriting of the post-punk era. Weller was just 18 when “In The City” came out, and already he’d mastered the choppy R&B and bellowing passion for which he’d become known.
But as Weller’s chops grew into his ambition, he began tinkering. Single after single, album after album, he’d attempt to top himself by exploring everything from acoustic balladry and psychedelia to funk and power-pop. Meanwhile his lyrics—informed greatly by his hero, The Kinks’ Ray Davies—began to probe poetry, ideas, and emotion in a way that still telegraphed working-class grit. Lean and lush at the same time, his many triumphs include the catchy yet chilling tale of racist brutality, “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight”; his scalding take on war (class and otherwise), “The Eton Rifles”; and the Motown-esque “Town Called Malice,” an upbeat yet melancholy hit that was one of Weller’s few singles to scrape the U.S. charts, if barely. Not only is Snap! the ideal entrée into the world of Weller, it’s a working model of everything he’d later accomplish in The Style Council and solo.
Next steps: As a testament to either his integrity or his volatility (or both), Weller quit The Jam at the height of the group’s popularity and immediately formed The Style Council. Featuring a revolving cast of musicians centered on Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot, the outfit’s fluidity allowed Weller to explore a broader, less rock-oriented sound. The Council’s debut full-length, Café Bleu (given a slightly different track listing and named My Ever Changing Moods in the States), shook Weller’s devoted fan base and kicked off a difficult decade in his career. While the album itself is a brave and bracing foray into slick, at times even silky soul and jazz, it never quite jelled with soulful contemporaries like Simply Red and Sade, both of whom had far greater success with a similar formula. As sophisticated as The Style Council sounds, Weller’s angst and anger always show through—a friction that works to the group’s advantage as often as against it. Of the two versions of the debut album, My Ever Changing Moods is the winner by a nose; unlike Café Blue, it includes one of the band’s most exuberant tracks, “A Solid Bond In Your Heart” (which started life as a demo by The Jam).
After a string of mostly fantastic albums (and membership in the leftist Red Wedge coalition of pop acts Weller cofounded with Billy Bragg), The Style Council fell apart after its label, Polydor, rejected the album Modernism: A New Decade for being too much of a departure. Enamored of the new house and acid-jazz scenes, Weller went solo. But after a brief flirtation with dance music, he forged boldly forward—and back—with his two breakthrough solo albums, 1993’s Wild Wood and 1995’s Stanley Road. As the Britpop movement ushered in a new age of musical patriotism, Weller reclaimed his throne as a British rock icon; worshipped as an influence by everyone from Blur to Oasis (the latter of which enlisted Weller as a guest on (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?), he suffused Wild Wood and Stanley Road with gorgeous, classic songcraft that called to mind everyone from John Lennon to Steve Winwood to Nick Drake. And his voice, as gruff as ever, continues to erode into a smoky croon.
Where not to start: Honestly, there isn’t a single album Paul Weller has put out—in any incarnation—that isn’t worth owning. Up to and including 2010’s Wake Up The Nation, he continues to deepen his comfortable and comforting groove while showing up with at least a few new tricks each time around. There are, however, a handful of Weller albums that don’t serve as worthy introductions to his body of work. The Jam’s sophomore album, This Is The Modern World, documents a young and unsure Weller clearly too worried about appeasing the punk movement to be able to strike out in a new direction. There are some great songs on the album, as well as some stinkers, but hesitancy has never looked good on Weller. Likewise, The Style Council’s aborted final album, Modernism: A New Decade—which eventually saw the light of day in 1998—is intriguing as a glimpse into Weller’s take on London club music circa 1988, but it feels forced and self-conscious, as well as a little dated. As for his solo discography, Studio 150 isn’t at all a showcase for Weller’s stellar songwriting, simply because it’s an album of covers. That said, he’s been a faithful interpreter of his influences’ songs since day one, and Studio 150’s unexpected renditions of classics like Neil Young’s “Birds” remain worth hearing.