On his 10th solo studio album, 51-year-old Paul Weller shows no sign of mellowing into middle-aged complacency. Admirably experimental and eclectic, but shot through with passionate anger, Wake Up The Nation sounds refreshingly different from any of the Modfather’s previous efforts.
His 2008 double-album 22 Dreams was even more innovative and diverse, but it felt lengthy and at times self-indulgent. This recording, also produced by long-term collaborator Simon Dine, is much more stripped down and muscular: it may feature 16 songs, but most of them last only about two and a half minutes. Characterized by breadth rather than depth, Wake Up The Nation may sound a bit fragmented, with individual songs not especially standing out, but this is a case where the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
The spiky opener Moonshine, which has The Move/ELO‘s Bev Bevan on drums, fizzes with energy with its feedback guitar and staccato piano. The title track, and current stomping single, is a call to arms against the dehumanizing effects of modern technology: “Get your face out of Facebook and switch off your phone,” Weller spits venomously, in between pulsating blasts of brass. The tone is much more tender in the sad love song No Tears To Cry – a Walker Brothers-style epic string-laden ballad, featuring 72-year-old legendary session and Tornadoes drummer Clem Cattini.
Fast Car/Slow Traffic has the highly recognizable Bruce Foxton on bass, the closest thing to The Jam getting back together that’s ever likely to happen – and quite appropriate for a big moan about metropolitan traffic jams. Its weird, spaced-out mellotron effects are expanded in the otherworldly feeling of Andromeda, the most fully fledged psychedelic track on the album, in which the singer compares himself to a dying planet: “My mood gets lifted with the gravity’s pull/Looks like I’m smiling but I’m dying too.”
Find The Torch, Burn The Plans is the closest thing to an out-and-out anthem, backed by a Ticket To Ride-like guitar riff, as Weller passionately urges the importance of reclaiming traditional heritage and culture. In the jazz funk Aim High he digs out his soulful falsetto, not heard much since his Style Council days.
At just over four minutes, Trees is easily the longest, and also the most complicated song on the album. Formed of five distinct parts, it moves from funky blues and psychedelic soul, to Small Faces mod rock and Traffic hippie trippiness, with a brief piano ballad coda. Inspired by visiting the nursing home where his father died last year, Weller voices the melancholic thoughts of an old person reminiscing on their youth, when “All my endeavours are forgot”.
The blues-rock Grasp & Still Connect is about the breakdown of communication in high-tech society, while in thrusting first single 7&3 Is The Striker’s Name (which has My Bloody Valentine‘s Kevin Shields guesting) the mood is aggressively positive, as Weller sings “Wings are clipped/But we still might fly away”, backed by a chanted ‘sha-la-la’ chorus.
A couple of songs don’t work – the meandering She Speaks seems aimless and the disco-style Up The Dosage anodyne – but overall Wake Up The Nation is an impressive achievement which sees Weller’s brand of psychedelic soul-rock revitalized. Retro has rarely sounded this fresh.