March 2003

Paul Weller - Illumination
Independiente 892000
Released: 2002

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2 *
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

Paul Weller’s first band, The Jam, came to prominence during the '70s punk explosion, but their personal, sartorial, and musical style owed more to Mod bands like The Who and The Small Faces than it did to the Sex Pistols. Weller still wears a Mod-style haircut, in tribute, perhaps, to Steve Marriott. The Jam had all the energy of punk, but Weller from the beginning showed a talent for writing tight, melodic pop songs.

Weller’s next band, The Style Council, incorporated soul music, jazz, bossa nova, and a host of other styles into a series of records some people found too eclectic and others bracing and adventurous (count me firmly in the latter camp). In 1989, Weller delivered the group’s sixth LP to its British label, which promptly rejected it and dropped the band. Perhaps as a consequence, Weller’s solo discs, including his newest, Illumination, have been more focused and accessible. I miss the unpredictability and excitement of the Style Council discs, but it’s hard to complain about a series of recordings as consistent and well crafted as Weller’s.

Weller has experimented with so many styles of music that his songwriting has remarkable depth and richness. He has learned well by keeping his ears open and trying different things. Illumination uses a mixture of old and new sounds -- everything from Hammond organ and Mellotron to sampling -- to create a disc that stakes Weller’s claim as a performer who still commands our attention while reminding us of his past achievements.

Weller says he didn’t want to fuss over Illumination as much as he did on his previous studio recording, Heliocentric. ("We mixed the balls right out of it.") Illumination feels spontaneous, but it’s also densely packed. Weller plays many of the instruments on the disc, and on the opening track, "Going Places," he uses an acoustic twelve-string guitar, Hammond organ, six-string acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and drums (played by Steve White). He keeps adding small touches to the song -- a guitar line or piano trill -- and he risks overloading it, but he’s placed instruments at different layers in the mix, so the sound is full but uncluttered. Much of the rest of the disc uses the same sonic approach, and it could probably be a little cleaner. Still, every time I listen to it some small nugget grabs my attention.

I always think of Weller as a guitarist, but he’s long used keyboards as often as guitar to help bring his songs to life. He has a great ear for tone and texture. He can use a nearly forgotten instrument like the Mellotron and make it sound up to the minute. Other older sounds keep popping up in Illumination, such as reverse tape loops and fuzz-toned guitars. Since Weller uses these sounds purely for the effect they create in the song and doesn’t call attention to them as artifacts, they don’t sound dated. He’s also adept at combining old and new styles. "It’s Written In the Stars" is built around a short horn sample, but Weller also throws in a Small Faces-like organ interlude in a couple of spots and the two sounds feel like they were meant for each other.

"A Bullet for Everyone," and "All Good Books" demonstrate that Weller has lost none of his political conviction (or his naiveté), but it’s on tender songs like "Who Brings Joy" and "Now the Night Is Here" that his voice really shines. His singing has grown more supple and expressive even as his voice has gotten more powerful. Drummer Steve White lays down a solid beat, as he has for every Weller recording since the first Style Council disc. A few guests help Weller out, including Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Kelly Jones (The Stereophonics), but it’s Weller’s show.

Illumination has a couple of slow points -- the duet with Jones only proves that Weller is the far better singer and the well-intentioned "Bag Man" sounds like one of Eric Clapton’s somnambulant acoustic ballads. But what remains is as strong as anything Weller has done and proves, once again, that he has very few peers.