Paul Weller wants to rage against the dying of the light. Maintaining an astonishingly fertile creative streak that ranges from near incessant touring to a walk-on role in Sherlock, ‘On Sunset’ is the English songwriter’s fifteenth solo album, yet – remarkably – it continues to revel in the shock of the new.
Sure, some familiar tropes are here – those funk and soul influences, and the shadow of Ray Davies, perhaps – but what lingers most profoundly are the way he finds fresh vantage points to view these tropes, while adding daringly fresh elements.
Initially intended to be a punk album, ‘On Sunset’ follows his 2018 song cycle ‘True Meanings’, a refulgent meditation on pastoral England. Since then, he’s released a one off EP on Ghost Box, a collection of wonk-pop analogue electronics that had more in common with The Focus Group and Pye Corner Audio than Ocean Colour Scene.
Indeed, it’s this electronic framing while helps lift ‘On Sunset’ safely away from those retro accusations. Opening track ‘Mirror Ball’ lingers in bubbling ambience, before exploding into shuddering bassline, before Paul Weller – perhaps the pre-eminent Blue Eyed Soul vocalist of his era – injects those phenomenal R&B influences.
Straining to be new while allowing itself to be incredibly natural, ‘On Sunset’ is full of curious angles, and unexpected partnerships. ‘More’ is rooted in a heavy duty funk drum pattern that could easily share common DNA with a hip-hop sample, while the heavenly electronics of ‘Sunset’ seems to take an archetypal English landscape and filter through one of those old, malfunctioning BBC computers that gather dust in old primary school warehouses.
‘Old Father Tyme’ is a stark and honest reflection on ageing, a sign of Weller opening up to responsibilities – he recently became a father once more – while retaining a thirst for possibility. ‘Equanimity’ rides on a jaunty piano pattern, the kind of 1920s speakeasy fare that Ray Davies interpolated for his own visions of Carnebatian London, both stubbornly un-English yet also an utterly definitive reference point.
Less easy to place, though, is something like ‘Earth Beat’. From its title to the Delia Derbyshire electronics it’s a kind of anti-Weller, something that stylistically borrows from the same ‘73 template the adorns his recent Ghost Box EP.
A cultural landscape he used to rail against, he seems to find a kind of nostalgia poignancy there, now – and curiously, there might actually be a planet-wide reverberation running through the Earth’s crust.
A record of complex musicality, ‘On Sunset’ is held together by the timbre of Paul Weller’s voice and his own steadfast determination. At times, it can feel unwieldy, the two opposing poles – funk-soul testimony vs electronic abstraction – struggling to meet. Yet when it fully sparks, the material on this new record sits alongside any from his storied, relentlessly creative solo run.
A testament to vehement artistry, ‘On Sunset’ finds Paul Weller refusing to let his fire dim.
Words: Robin Murray
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