Album Review: Paul Weller, ‘Saturns Pattern’
Over the last four decades, Paul Weller has constantly kept one foot in the past and one on the present.
With the Jam, he took his love of 1960s Mod culture and pushed it right into the then blossoming punk era. From the Jam through the Style Council and right through his solo career, he has been able to maintain that sense of past riding tandem with present, consistently avoiding being linked to any given era in particular.
Unlike many artists of a certain age, Weller has never once shown interest in riding the nostalgia train into his sunset years ... I think they call that timeless. On his new album, Saturns Pattern, Weller is still moving forward. Since his resurgence in the mid-'90s, Weller has made a habit of trying not to make the same record over and over, and for the large part has succeeded. In more recent years, that urge to explore new roads has grown. 2008's 22 Dreams found him branching out into areas unclaimed by the Modfather. That sense of adventure carried through in 2012's Sonik Kicks which, though somewhat hit and miss, when it hit, it hit hard. Saturns Pattern shows Weller finding a stronger footing while still adding to his palette.
The new album opens with "White Sky," an unusually hard number that gets into a genuinely heavy groove. Its, dare we say, almost Zeppelin-ish heavy handedness seems out of character for Mr. Weller, but he turns it on its ear and makes it his own. As the years have gone on, Weller has been quick to embrace new paths to the extent that I would guess even he is surprised by some of what he puts together these days.
"Long Time" is a pretty straightforward rocker that manages to avoid any sort of garage cliches as it filters in some ornamental synth squalls, while "Pick It Up" molds itself as some sort of 21st century soul tune that is equal parts futuristic and retro. In some sort of obscure reach, there is a sense of a kindred spirit in the work of Todd Rundgren that plays throughout -- not in direct comparison, but in the way that, like Todd, Paul is able to mix his love of the traditional with his need for experimentation to come up with something unique. (Weller referred to his influences for the album as "everything and nothing" in a recent interview with Gigwise.)
"This Is Where I Should Be" could have been a "classic" Weller rocker, but he reshapes the seemingly standard tune into a very different type of creature. That happens a lot on this album. It's not that his writing has changed a whole lot, but rather it's his approach to the arrangements and the overall sonic experience that has evolved. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't, but like many great artists, Weller is not afraid to see what's behind that next door. In fact, "In the Car" could have been a lost Neil Young styled country tune, but Weller filters it all through an electronic wash as he weaves elements of gospel, blues and jazz into the mix.
"Going My Way" is a lovely piano-based ballad that has a certain McCartney, or perhaps even Beach Boys, fashioned undercurrent to it. The album ends with a wonderful soul number, "These City Streets," that, once again, puts past and future hand-in-hand while avoiding cliches at every corner. The refrain of "We still got a long way to go" could even be a credo for Weller's future outings.
You get the idea throughout Saturns Patterns that when faced with the question of which turn to take in a given song, Weller intentionally chooses the less obvious. That plan seems to have worked well for him on this disc, finding him honing his vision of moving forward into an even more refined offering than before.
"I don't know how you can make the same record year after year, it would bore the s--- out of me really," Weller mentioned in the Gigwise chat. "So I'm always looking to see where else I can go with the music and where I can take it. And I try and remain as open minded as possible in my old age. I don't feel there's anything I wouldn't try and attempt musically. It's wide open to see what happens."
Saturns Pattern is a triumph for Mr. Weller. He is more focused here than he was on Sonik Kicks, and the new ideas work throughout. Time will tell if it holds up as well as classics such as Heavy Soul or Stanley Road, but for the here and now, it's pretty damn great.