“I’m schooled in the test of time” – Moonshine
“I wasn’t even thinking about doing another record” says Paul Weller of the inspiration behind his brand new album Wake Up the Nation. “After 22 Dreams I didn’t have any songs to speak of apart from the odd title or couplet. So the whole process was really different. It was almost like starting from scratch.” After an unparalleled career, characterised by constant musical experimentation, we should be used to Paul Weller’s relentless desire to chop and change his musical pack. But after the triumphant, Brit-bagging success of 22 Dreams (his third solo number one) his tenth solo album sees rock’s most iconic songwriter come up trumps once more.
Lean, mean and as uncompromisingly focused as it’s maker, Wake Up The Nation also brings Paul Weller full circle: twenty-eight years on from The Jam’s split, two tracks feature the band’s bassist Bruce Foxton. “It’s been a long time, obviously, but we both really enjoyed it “ says Paul of this unlikely reunion. “Bruce has still got his own style and sound, which really worked for the track we’d planned to do, ‘Fast Car Slow Traffic’. Then we got him to play on ‘She Speaks’, which might not necessarily be his kind of thing, but he put his own stamp on that, too.”
Sessions for what would become Wake Up the Nation began last January with 22 Dreams collaborator Simon Dine. Working at Weller’s de facto HQ, Black Barn Studios in Surrey, the duo, plus long term in-house engineer Charles Rees, set about creating a record inspired by Dine’s musical vision.
“Simon had a clear idea about how the record should sound” explains Paul. “He wanted to make it very urban and tough, quite metallic sounding. In quite a few cases I would improvise the vocals and see what happened. It was a completely different way of working.”
To reflect the urgency and claustrophobia of city life, strict rules were laid down. Out went acoustic instrumentation and any folky or pastoral inflections. In came jagged rock grooves, Bowie-esque riffs (think Low or Diamond Dogs), and a genre-shredding spirit spawned from the sessions for 22 Dreams.
“We’d get people in to play on individual tracks as we needed them” explains Paul.“Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) plays on one track. Clem Cattini (legendary session drummer) and Bev Bevan (The Move/ELO) play on a couple of tunes. Little Barrie plays guitar on a couple. Andy Crofts (keyboardist in Weller’s touring band) played guitar, bass, keyboards and some stylophone. It was just a question of mixing it all up, and seeing what worked.”
The result is a fourteen track blast of tungsten-tough rock’n’roll, already described by one insider as ‘Stockhausen meets The Small Faces’. If there are mellow moments -notably rare groove shuffle ‘Aim High’ – the abrasive feel of ‘Grasp And Still Connect’ and limited edition single ‘7 & 3 Is The Strikers Name’ are as musically challenging as any record you’ll hear this year. But then what else would you expect from a songwriter whose influences range from Alice Coltrane to Vaughan Williams, and whose current listening includes Broadcast’s Witch Cults Of The Radio Age and folk outfit Erland And The Carnival?
Lyrically, it marks a departure too. If 22 Dreams was a sprawling reverie, Wake Up The Nation is the sound of Weller wide awake, ready to take the world on again. Fans of Weller the polemicist (think ‘Money Go Round’; ‘Soul Deep’) will be thrilled to hear it’s his angriest sounding record in years.
“The title track is a bit of a clarion call for our nation” explains Paul.
“It’s saying we should rise up against this sea of mediocrity, and get some greatness back into this country. The media, tv, music, politics, they’ve all become bland. It’s not that people have become apathetic, they feel disenfranchised. There’s no real democracy any more. Before the Iraq War there were a million people who marched against it and it didn’t make a scrap of difference.”
“Musically, it’s an obvious target, but shows like X Factor also set a very low standard for people to look up to. I know I’ll sound old fashioned, but I had people like The Beatles and the Kinks to look up to. That’s why the Rage Against The Machine thing was so good. I’d like to see a huge backlash against celebrity culture.”
Amidst the lyrical fire, there’s also consummate skill. ‘No Tears To Cry’ is a sublime Walker Brothers influenced ballad, while ‘Trees’ is a five-part musical montage about the passage of life which pinballs from ragtime to polka to punk to psych-pop to gospel in just over four mind-blowing minutes.
“That was inspired by going to see my dad in a nursing home just before he died” explains Paul.
“I was trying to imagine what those people’s lives were like. Some of the old girls would once have been beautiful young women, and now they were just waiting to be replaced back into the earth or the atmosphere, or whatever it is that happens to us.”
Passion, progression, and, as ever, spine-tingling rock’n’roll –Paul Weller has, yet again, delivered the perfect soundtrack as we embark on a new decade.
“I can’t wait to get out there and play it to people” enthuses Paul.
This is one wake up call you don’t want to miss.