Inconsistent but experimental release from British great
Rivaled only by the likes of David Bowie, English artist Paul Weller’s solo career possesses esteem and longevity that is to be envied by nearly every modern artist. On his fifteenth solo album, On Sunset, Weller proves that even at 62, he has no intention of slowing down.
Rising to fame with punk rock band The Jam and continuing success with blue-eyed soul band The Style Council, Weller established his expertise in various musical styles, including rock, soul and folk. Free from the restraint of a label, he launched his solo career in 1991, writing experimental music that pushed boundaries and the limits of genre. In all the years since, he has never stopped playing with sound in new and interesting ways.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of Weller’s commitment to writing relevant music is On Sunset’s opener, “Mirror Ball.” An eight-minute epic, the song utilizes everything from the Hammond organ to found sounds, like radio static and dance beats. Add in a brief moment of relief with insanely complex vocal layering and the piano coda, and the track is a testament to just how far out of the box Weller is willing to go.
Lead single “More” and the title track also putter along for over six minutes, however, they lack the same intensity and impressiveness. “More” feels like a younger cousin to “Mirror Ball,” including French lyricism, cowbell and a full orchestra. The second half of the track is a wall of sound, and as grand as it is, it isn’t quite as nuanced as the opening track.
“On Sunset” masterfully sums up the rather lackluster theme of the entire record. Nostalgic both in tone and lyricism, both the song and album find Weller romanticizing the past and boasting about his contentment with domesticity. Already a cliché, overdone topic, Weller’s unimpressive and predictable lyrics do not do him any favors. Bland, generic statements like “But the world I knew has all moved on” fail to elicit the same emotional response that simply listening to the weathered tone of Weller’s voice does.
Tracks like “Baptise,” a love letter to soul, “Village” and “Walkin’” are more accessible. They follow a structure closer to traditional pop music and tap out at a reasonable length. Nevertheless, each of them feels watered down and drenched in sepia tones. The depth of the more experimental songs is noticeably absent here.
The hidden gem of On Sunset is without a doubt “Equanimity.” Easily able to fit into a cabaret or a jazz club, the song not only flexes Weller’s songwriting muscles but highlights his potential to produce surprising and refreshing music. “Earth Beat,” which expertly features British R&B artist Col3trane, and “Rockets,” a ballad just shy of being a Bowie tribute, end the album on a satisfactory note. Neither track is particularly earth-shattering, but compared to some of the muddled middle songs, these two function as a nice wrap up.
The problem with On Sunset is not lack of direction or ambition. One listen to the experimental avant-garde laments and its evident Weller not only still has something to say, but he knows precisely how to say it. The issue is consistency. Where some tracks breathe new life into the genres Weller’s been playing for over four decades, others feel distant and removed from modernity.
Filled with both hits and misses, On Sunset is a testament to Weller’s longevity. After being part of more than thirty releases, Weller has long since paid his dues and proven he deserves his seat at the table. Weller’s pure happiness and satisfaction with life that bleed out on On Sunset are contagious and that alone makes it worth a listen.