The trajectory of Paul Weller’s 35-year career has seem him relentlessly spin through almost every conceivable trope of 20th century popular music, from New Wave, to easy listening through acid house and Britpop. Does this suggest a trailblazing musical crusader, effortlessly wearing his myriad influences on his sleeve, constantly seeking out new ways to enthral and enrapture his loyal audience? Or, does it just mean the perma-tanned Weller is the Swiss Toni of British rock, keen to jump on the latest bandwagon and desperately eager to remain relevant and vital to the ‘kids’?
Sonik Kicks is the former The Jam man’s 11th album and comes on a wave of critical resurgence amid overhauls and upheavals of both his musical and personal lives. Having ploughed his workmanlike Dadrock furrow into the ground by the time of 2005’s As Is Now, the release of 2008’s 22 Dreams and 2010’s Wake Up The Nation saw Weller festooned with garlands, praising his new-found audacity as he gleefully collaborated with the likes of ex-bandmate Bruce Foxton, Kevin Shields and the Woking Gay Community Choir.
But the most immediate aspect of Sonik Kicks is not wilful experimentation or offbeat excursions; instead, what is obvious is that Paul Weller has been listening to Neu!. Quite a lot, it seems. In fact, the opening track Green is squealing with the sound of the motorik metronome, while buzzsaw guitars and crazy panning almost entirely drown out the half-spoken vocals. Kling I Klang – an unintended tribute to Kraftwerk‘s recording studio after a journalist misheard the original title – is almost vaudevillian in its swinging groove, bringing to mind a more streamlined Tiger Lillies, while lead single That Dangerous Age, a self-effacing nod to the age gap between the modfather and his missus, is a throwaway chant-along bolstered by yet more buzzing synths, handclaps and clipped rhythms, a lean funk workout thwarted at birth.
However, Sonik Kicks isn’t entirely haunted by the spectre of German modernities. In fact, it’s the gentler, more languid tracks which see Weller finding his true range. Always a man with an eye for a keen collaborator, the addition of High Llamas‘ Sean O’Hagan as string arranger brings a stately sheen to the wonderful Study In Blue, where not only the title could have come from the early (hey)days of The Style Council. A duet with wife Hannah, Study In Blue might be the most elegant proffering from Weller in years, the dreamy dub coda exploding in a gale of space rock wizardry.
Equally affecting is Dragonfly, with a lyric seemingly constructed from a poem written by daughter Jessie, and an insistent bass line punctuated by shards of kiss-the-sky guitars and an understated vocal delivery. And therein lies the key to Sonik Kicks – the album succeeds when Weller takes a step back from communicating his current listening tastes to us and lets his natural craftsmanship take centre stage. There’s nothing as crazily abstract as 22 Dreams’ 111 on here; the instrumental Twilight is 20 seconds of bleeps and percussion and Sleep Of The Serene is a string-laden fragment – and that’s about as obscure as things get.
The thing with Weller is that he always has a trump card – reforming The Jam. So perhaps we should be glad that he has yet to succumb to that particular facet of retro-culture. But throughout Sonik Kicks, it somehow feels as if the Krautrock vibe is a needless intrusion, an unnecessary welding and meshing of styles. Because when Weller drops the appendages, he is still an artist of depth and soul. The Style Council renaissance begins here.