If you are an American, you're probably not familiar with the name Paul Weller. If you're from the UK, you probably know his shoe size. It's sad, but true. While in his home country he is revered as a high icon of rock, much along the same lines as a John Lennon or a David Bowie, here in the good old US of A it seems we couldn't care less. We don't care about the Jam, the Style Council, or the fact that Mr. Weller's music has influenced more artists around the world in the past 25 years than just about anybody else.
But why? I think it has something to do with the sheer fact that Mr. Weller is a self-proclaimed musical chameleon, The Changingman. He defies labeling and categorization, which is something that the average American music fan does not handle well. We are, after all, talking about the man who disbanded the Jam, one of the greatest bands to come out of the punk movement, at the pinnacle of their popularity in the UK. The causes were not irreconcilable differences among band members along the lines of the Beatles or the Police; we're talking about a premeditated decision to end it while the band was on top. Weller then moved on to create a group that was the exact antithesis of his previous one. The Style Council was pure 80s pop without apology, embracing the new wave with open arms. Americans barely caught on to the Jam in the first place, never mind the Style Council.
Then, in 1992, Weller began a new course in his career. His solo debut took a new turn into funky, psychedelic acid-jazz sounds that finished off what the Style Council started. When America was obsessed with Seattle grunge, Weller was taking his Euro fans into outer space with smooth grooves and British Invasion flavored be-bop. But he didn't stop there. Weller did an about face and recorded his watershed classic, Wild Wood, in 1993. This one was a highly introspective album that shunned the acid grooves for intimate guitar-based mod rock. He laid his very soul into that record, and some would say it is his finest work to date.
From there, he released Stanley Road and 1997's Heavy Soul, two albums that continued his retro rock journey, exploring the various guitar rock sounds of the late 60s and 70s. As a whole, they were very strong albums, but somehow never quite reached the heights of Wild Wood. Even with the inclusion of the song You Do Something To Me in the popular movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs, America ignored him. Ignored him so much that after the commercial failure of Heavy Soul in the U.S., his next effort would not even grace the racks of mainstream American record stores. And here we stand in 2000 with that very album, Heliocentric.
For most of his solo career, Weller has dealt with the issues of growing older and the fear of becoming irrelevant. Gone is the fiery furnace of the Jam, along with the cheeky smirks of the Style Council; and for once in his solo years he seems to be at ease with this fact. Heliocentric is the music of an older, wiser man. This is not to say he has lost his fire, because he has somehow embraced his fears and milked them into some of the most intense and wonderful songs he has written in years.
The influence of Paul McCartney is felt on Frightened, which centers on a piano backed with strings. On the surface, the light-hearted Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea could appear to be a little too sentimental, but it reveals a tender side that is filled with sincerity: "The Future? - it's looking at you / It only exists because you're alive." In contrast, there is a definite bite to the unflinching There Is No Drinking, After You're Dead. Only experience can help you write a song that deals with life in such honest terms: "And time is but an essence / encased upon the wall / that brings our day of reckoning / much closer to us all."
There are inspiring moments where Weller takes chances, like the funky acoustic grooves of A Whale's Tale, or the trip-hop beat of Back In The Fire, which probably takes more than a few lessons from the ultra-smooth Portishead remix of the title track from Weller's Wild Wood a few years ago. With Time & Temperance revives some of the better times of his Style Council era, mixing a jazzy beat with the lush sounds of the string section.
Heliocentric does not reach out and grab you. It convinces you slowly and pulls you in a little at a time until you are lost in it. Weller is still alive and has plenty to say. It's too bad that that the U.S. may never have the chance to hear it.