At 50, Weller is still pursuing his dreams!
Thirty-plus years, nine solo albums, and at least one legendary band into his career, British singer-songwriter Paul Weller remains a striking musical enigma.
As the onetime teenage leader of the Jam, which exploded like a Pop Art spectacle of noise, color, and energy onto the fresh canvas of creative possibility that was England in 1977, Weller was both an adventurous agent of change and an unapologetic traditionalist with a sentimental streak. His cool demeanor, caustic outlook, and knack for blending both with melodic concision and power chords made Weller one of punk’s brightest beacons. At the same time, he was a Mod revivalist whose tastes ran to American soul music, sharp suits, and Kinks covers.
Weller pulled the plug on the Jam in 1982, five years into a run of hit singles, sold-out concerts, and devoted fan worship, and promptly launched the Style Council, a slick synth-soul outfit that alienated as many old fans as it won new ones. Undaunted, Weller then embarked on a solo career during the ’90s that all but shelved the Jam’s loud and fast leanings for a rootsier, deeper shade of soul. His voice grew huskier, his mood more introspective. Small wonder the man titled one of his tunes “The Changingman.”
Still, Weller – who’s returning to the US for the first time in years for a brief fall tour that brings him to the Berklee Performance Center on Tuesday – sees his work as part of an unbroken continuum.
“I don’t think there’s a division,” Weller says by phone from a California hotel room, having just flown in from overseas. “I’ve gone off in different places, and sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they’re not successful. But nevertheless, it’s still part of my journey in life and what I’ve always done, which is make music. I don’t see a big difference between any of it.”
Even so, Weller does claim his ninth and latest solo album, “22 Dreams,” released this summer on Yep Roc Records, represents as dramatic a departure from his past as anything he’s done. As befits its title, the disc sounds like 70 minutes of invention, imagination, and escape.
The album – and yes, “22 Dreams” feels like an album, a sustained body of work rather than a random collection of downloadable tracks – opens with an invitation: the Eastern-tinged, stringed instrumentation of “Light Nights.” It closes with the slow, gorgeous thunder and rain of “Night Lights,” a reverse-title meditation of Moog, piano, and harmonium. In between, there’s the sinewy garage rock (with horns) of the title track, the sumptuous jazz journey of “Song for Alice” (dedicated to Alice Coltrane, late wife of departed jazz titan John Coltrane and an adventurous musician in her own right), and the swirling psychedelia of “Echoes Round the Sun,” a co-written collaboration with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher.
“I wanted to try to make something really different, and I feel I did,” Weller says of the disc’s scope. “Which is not always easy, because the older you get, the more set you are in your own ways, and everybody’s got their limitations.”
The prospect of turning 50 this year fueled his desire to sum up where he had been and reach for new vistas. “I was very conscious of it,” he says. “I thought, ‘You’re going to be 50, man, you should just do whatever you want and make the most indulgent record you’ve ever made, or ever wished to make.’ Which I did. The ironic thing is that it seems to have clicked with people.”
“For a lot of artists, most of their best work’s behind them by the time they’re 50,” he adds. “But for me, there’s a kind of breakthrough with this record. It kind of showed me that anything’s possible, really – it’s showed me a way forward.”
Yep Roc co-owner Glenn Dicker says “22 Dreams” has been Weller’s fastest-selling album for the label.
“He’s certainly got this very soulful vibe to what he’s doing, and he’s always had that,” says Dicker. “His career stands as a testament to being independent, and he’s certainly been able to achieve great things. But I think now, a whole new generation of kids are recognizing him as being the only one from that [British punk] era that’s actually still doing something viable. Our strategy is to help get the word out.”
Indeed, Weller has never been as big a star in this country as he is at home, where he’s referred to affectionately as “The Modfather.” But much like his ’60s heroes the Small Faces and the pre-“Tommy” Who, some observers chalked up the Jam as being too British to translate to American audiences. And there’s always been a tendency to measure the quality of his solo work, sometimes unflatteringly, against the Jam’s fiery legacy.
“After the Jam split and I formed the Style Council – that was tough going at that time, because I was always being compared to what I’d done previously,” Weller says. “But it’s not a big weight ’round my neck at all – quite the opposite now. I’m probably at the age and stage where it’s not a bummer for me. If I play [the Jam’s] ‘A Town Called Malice’ or ‘That’s Entertainment,’ it’s almost like they’re in the public domain now. Those songs have entered a different realm and they’re out of my hands, really. They belong to the people. It’s a nice legacy to have.”
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.