Album of the week: Paul Weller


PAUL Weller has just turned 50. I know – and he's still getting away with that bogbrush mod hairdon't. Anyway. With two successful (one classic) bands in his past, a solo career that allows his many acolytes continued access to the hem of his garment and even a lifetime achievement award from the Brits on his sideboard, where can a middle-aged Modfather go?

Trundling down the same old dadrock road to eventual retirement, one would have thought. The fans would be content enough with that. Noel Gallagher, self-appointed national arbiter of taste, wouldn't raise an objection. But Weller has other ideas, dangerous ideas involving a 70-minute concept album, available as a double LP (and single CD too, if you insist), which will take a year to record and will sonically represent the changing of the seasons. An idea crazier than getting a wedge haircut and forming The Style Council. Can someone have a word with him, please? Too late, Gallagher, he's already gone and done it – and you're on it too. And, against the odds, it's pretty damn good.

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There are 21 tracks on 22 Dreams, and most of them are worth the time of day (or season). In scale, ambition and variety, this is Weller's equivalent of The White Album, or at least his Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. Stylistically, he visits places he hasn't been before, breaking into a tango on One Bright Star, embarking on a Moog and Mellotron odyssey called 111, and using esoteric instrumentation such as bouzouki, hornpipes and other poncy stuff you might have thought Weller would have no truck with. He even breaks out a celeste at one point.

But instead of coming across as indulgent, there is a prevailing lightness of touch to most of the album that contrasts with his usual terribly manly mod rock. It sounds like playtime in the studio. Playmates include Graham Coxon (on drums), John McCusker and, crucially, producer Simon Dine, who has demonstrated that he has a soundtrack-like ear on his own recordings as Noonday Underground.

The opening raga reverie of Light Nights is pure George Harrison. Weller's regular guitarist Steve Craddock of Ocean Colour Scene is in hippie heaven with his 12-string. From this patchouli-scented intro, he snaps back to the sturdy retro beat pop of the title track, complete with blaring horns and a sense that all systems are go.

All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You) is Weller in more contemplative, romantic mood. Although not as brazenly heartstring-tugging as You Do Something To Me, it's a good example of devotion delivered straight. Equally unforced is the pastoral soul of current single Have You Made Up Your Mind.

The sonorous piano ballad Invisible is a little bleeding heart but takes its place happily in the company, which is one positive sign that this album is more than the sum of its diverse parts.

Among the highlights along the way are the twinkling retro pop of Empty Ring and The Dark Pages of September Lead to The New Leaves Of Spring. This is where Dine really comes into his own, rivalling the wide-eyed euphoria of The Avalanches, Polyphonic Spree or Blur's To The End. Cold Moments, which sounds like vintage Love or The Zombies, is also lovely and light on its feet thanks to an airy piano figure, but is also infused with Weller's signature mod soul style.

Every concept album needs its ill-advised spoken word track, and this one has God, recited by former Ian Brown collaborator Aziz Ibrahim. But far more far out is the alluring Song For Alice, a groovy, cascading, jazzy instrumental tribute to the sublime Alice Coltrane, featuring the idiosyncratic Robert Wyatt on both piano and trumpet.

In contrast, Push It Along is straightforward Stonesy R&B in case the lads are feeling neglected. It is followed by the Noel Gallagher number, Echoes Round The Sun, a track that might be called progress if it appeared on an Oasis album but sounds a bit spot- the-influence beside some of the naturally flowing material here.

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Then it is back to where we came in, with Weller and ensemble floating off on their musical magic carpet on the closing Night Lights. According to the sleevenotes, God makes a guest appearance on this track.

Weller asks that the album be listened to in one go, rather than chopped up on your iPod. Those who follow his wishes will be the most rewarded, as the tracks flow into each other, before veering off on their little tangents. Poet Simon Armitage offers his own take on the album in the form of a story in the sleeve booklet – 22 Dreams has definitely taken him on one trippy trip. And it is certainly the most intriguing journey Paul Weller has embarked on in years.