Has Paul Weller ever been so productive? The ex-Jam front man, recently turned 60, has now made three markedly different albums in as many years, flitting from one branch to another like a musical chameleon. His restlessness is born of musical exploration, not the need to keep appealing to the music-buying public – and with his status as a national treasure practically assured, Weller can experiment and explore as album number 26 opens up ahead of him.
True Meanings, however, lives up to its name as his most natural and instinctive work in recent years. It finds him re-treading some of the English pastoral ground explored with 1993’s Wild Wood, which will come as good news to many. But rather than strip the music back to a bare accompaniment, Weller has a larger ensemble in tow.
Happily he avoids the common, current practice of throwing every layer of the orchestra into the mix, instead relying on the sensitively wrought string arrangements of Hannah Peel, which make an immediate impression as violin tremolos cast dappled sunlight over The Soul Searchers. The ripples of a harp thrum dreamily through Glide, while consoling lines are applied to Aspects, one of several songs casting a lingering glance in the direction of Nick Drake.
For the lyrics Weller also looks further afield, an unusual practice for him. The Soul Searchers, written by Villagers’ Conor O’Brien, could easily have been from Weller himself, so easily does it fall in with his mature style. Wishing Well and White Horses are written by Erland Cooper, as is Bowie, a husky and deeply poignant tribute that asks, “How can the world lose his name”? Ultimately the song is cathartic in Weller’s hands, its moving closing lines – “We all have to go, believe me, but letting go is thanking you” – followed by a low vocalise, delivered with soft but meaningful poise.
The directly written songs are deeply poignant too. Mayfly is a lovely song, its undulations taken out into the open air by the subtle addition of field recordings, while “salutations fill the air” at the start of Gravity, affectionately delivered, later perfumed with multitracked vocals and sweet violins.
A number of musical guests make fleeting appearances on True Meanings, as though Weller were celebrating the power of collaboration within music. Martin Carthy and Danny Thompson appear on the reflective but content Come Along, Rod Argent adds a shimmering Hammond organ to the latter stages of The Soul Searchers, and Noel Gallagher perhaps surprisingly adds a harmonium to Books. Despite these layers of instrumental contribution the songs remain wide open and free, their textures subtly managed and rather beautifully shaded.
The impression of True Meanings is that of a wistful but sharply observed set of reflections, inspired by Weller reaching his seventh decade perhaps but retaining a fiercely beating and slightly restless heart just beneath the surface. All these elements are encapsulated in Movin On, the first release from the album.
This is an Indian summer for Paul Weller, who no longer seems to be at ‘that dangerous age’. It will be intriguing to see where he heads next on his musical tour, adapting as he does to different styles, though time and again the music of True Meanings feels like the most naturally sourced for him as an artist now. It is very much a case of a little less being a whole lot more.