Over the course of Paul Weller’s career, he has displayed the kind of restless genre-hopping that saw him dissolve The Jam at the height of their powers in favour of experimenting with Motown, funk and synth-jazz with The Style Council. His resurrection as solo artist and exalted figure of the Britpop scene in the 90s saw this experimental spirit recede somewhat in the face of traditional rock releases that propelled him to the peak of the UK charts. As a result, casual listeners tend to identify Weller with the kind of dad-friendly trad-rock that blights record store shelves every time Father’s Day rolls around.
However, with 2008’s 22 Dreams and now Wake Up the Nation, fans are being reacquainted with Weller the innovator. Here the Modfather is making full use of his exceptional musical vocabulary, and Wake Up the Nation feels like an unrestrained sonic exploration. On muscle-bound opener Moonshine, Weller’s vocals are reminiscent of the mischief and threat of Nick Cave’s recent releases, backed by atonal guitar breakdowns that echo early QOTSA’s washed-out acid rock. No Tears to Cry and Aim High are glorious reconnections with 1960s soul-pop; lazily waltzing Gallic instrumental In Amsterdam manages to be both nostalgic and strangely unsettling; and Whatever Next mixes dreamy strings with a bowel-loosening bassline that wouldn’t be out of place in a dubstep set. As the record progresses, one can almost hear Weller as he limbers up and stretches ever further.
The album shares 22 Dreams’ long tracklist (16 songs in all), but Weller has stripped each song down to bare bones, with few tracks straying past three minutes and many barely scratching two. This is a blessing and a curse. The album roars along at an impressive pace, taking the listener on a hallucinogenic expedition through Weller’s varied stylistic terrain. But while brevity mitigates the songs that fail (Fast Car/Slow Traffic, with bass by Bruce Foxton, feels like a discarded Jam curio), it also makes the album’s successes frustratingly fleeting. It’s only Trees, a magnificent, morphing epic centred on old folks recounting the strength and beauty of their youth, which gets a full four-minute hearing.
Nevertheless, what the album lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in the length and breadth of Weller’s imagination. Above all, it’s an album that is entirely unsuitable for inclusion on a Top Gear dad-rock compilation, and for that it’s a parade-worthy triumph.