“This isn’t my West Coast record”, said the Modfather ahead of his 15th solo album. And musically it isn’t – though with the blonde swept-back hair/perma-tan look, Day-Glo artwork, and title it is at least aesthetically his LA album. And to be frank that was not something you would have seen coming; Weller is very at home in Surrey, thank you very much. One of PW’s strengths is his ability to play with people’s misconceptions, though. It’s why he folded The Jam to expand his musical horizons, it’s why the last Style Council album is a dance record, it’s why 22 Dreams was his miffed reaction to the constant ‘Dad Rock’ digs that had began to seriously miff him.
The one constant in his career is his restlessness. Over the past two decades he has not put consecutive albums out that share that much DNA. Sometimes this is brilliant news – True Meanings glorious deep dive into his soul followed the lacklustre songwriting of A Kind Revolution, for example. Sometimes, however, it falls completely flat – see letting Simon Dine take creative control on Sonik Kicks to produce subpar Primal Scream-isms directly after the pithy brilliance of Wake Up The Nation. And On Sunset has big boots to fill after True Meanings saw some quarters hailing it as his best ever LP.
There’s no cause for panic – On Sunset is generally a quality album. However it something of a curate’s egg, a theme of many of Weller’s album. He doesn’t worry about nailing ten track masterpieces for the ages. Instead he loosely themes his albums and keeps churning them out. He’s very old-school in that regard
On Sunset harks back somewhat to the experimental pop tones of the 22 Dreams/Wake Up The Nation era, though the reference points have subtly shifted. The Beatles are still king of the hill, but there’s lots of late ’60s Beach Boys vocal moments on most tracks here, and plenty of modern soul/disco production touches. Perhaps most interestingly is the experimental touches of film soundtracks and electronic hauntology sounds that come through louder than before. Opener ‘Mirror Ball’ goes through so many moods, and encapsulates all of those aforementioned different sounds, that trying to describe its seven minutes succinctly is futile. Suffice to say it is astonishing radiant – his Sgt Pepper dreams turned up to 11.
That he follows it up with the pedestrian ‘Baptiste’, which sounds like an outtake from Wild Wood, is odd. No amount of gorgeous strings conducted by new best pal, composer/arranger Hannah Peel can disguise it’s plain character. He’s straight back on form though with the syncopated rock-pop of ‘Old Father Thyme’, where he dispenses his considerable wisdom – “In this time of confusion/Hang onto what is real/Hail the love around us”.
Minor-chord soul ballad ‘Village’ is a song that shows off his beatific side wonderfully, the surging violins and wah-wah guitar backing occupying the space that Richard Ashcroft has made his own since going solo. ‘More’ is the best track on the album; Terry Callier and Gil Scott-Heron vibes abound, with a hint of that experimental electronica too. It’s Weller merging his past and present in perfect harmony. The vampy, McCartney piano on “Equanimity” and “Walkin’” is a nice pace-changer – the former a Kinksian touchstone.
The album nears the end with ‘Earth Beat’, his future-pop burner that’s full of verve and sun-kissed vitality, and it had to be the opening single. Closing song ‘Rockets’ is his Bowie-esque hushed ballad that is pleasant enough.
NN watch – Andy Crofts and Ben Gordelier are present and correct on the album, though the former isn’t on as many tracks as on recent albums. The latter’s jazzy drum touches really come to prominence throughout, showcasing how central he is to the Black Barn studio team.
So, a solid album overall. During its peaks On Sunset is as good as anything he’s done in his solo career, and that overrides some of the lesser moments. Sonically it’s never dull, and there’s plenty of variation to please every type of fan along the way. Is there anyone 43 years into a recording career and is still as interesting as he? 15 albums in and Weller is still having fun with his muse for our pleasure. Onwards and upwards, as he likes to say.
On Sunset is out now on many formats
Feature image by Nicole Nodland