“After As Is Now I thought the time was right to make the sort of record I wanted to make” says Paul Weller of the creative process which led to his extraordinary ninth solo album 22 Dreams.
“Instead of worrying about anyone else, I wanted to really push the boat out. I think the result is going to surprise a few people.”
Recorded over the course of a year at Black Barn Studio’s in Woking, 22 Dreams will do more than that. A kaleidoscopic tour de force incorporating rock, funk, soul, free jazz, krautrock, classical, spoken word, electronica and all stops in between, it’s a seventy minute (m)odysssey delivered with a verve and ambition to shame musicians half his edge.
“I’ve never understood the need to put music into boxes” says Paul.
“To me, it all comes from the same source. I could listen to Debussy one minute, then some avant-garde jazz album, then Curtis Mayfield the next. It all comes from the same source.”
For those who’ve followed Paul’s unparalleled thirty year journey through British pop, 22 Dreams should come as no surprise. Having split up The Jam at the height of their powers in 1982, he spent the rest of the eighties challenging pop convention with The Style Council (including an attempt to turn a reluctant audience on to Acid House in 1989).
In the nineties, he pioneered a new form of psychedelic folk-rock -accurately described by Robert Wyatt as “new furniture seasoned from old wood” -which reinstalled him as the pre-eminent songwriter of his generation. Nonetheless, following the top five success of As Is Now and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits in 2007, he could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels. But then, that’s never been Paul’s way.
“I felt I’d gone as far as I could with the band with As Is Now, so I decided to freshen things up. In the studio it was mostly just me, Steve Cradock and (producer) Simon Dine. We recorded very quickly. People would come down to the Barn, and if they had an idea, they’d go straight in and record. It was all about catching the feeling rather than scrutinising every last detail.”
Featuring an illustrious roll-call of guest musicians including Noel Gallagher and Gem from Oasis (on the staggering Weller/Gallagher composition ‘Echoes Around The Sun’ ), Graham Coxon (‘Black River’), Little Barrie (“22 Dreams”) and folk guitarist John McCrusker (‘Light Nights’), 22 Dreams also reflects a personal milestone in Paul’s life.
“I’m fifty this year, and I think that contributed to the sense of urgency (laughs). But it also made me want to make something really special. I wanted to make an album with a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s why the two songs ‘Light Nights’ and ‘Night Light’s’ are at the first and last tracks. It’s designed to be listened to in one sitting, in the same way that Pet Sounds or Sgt Pepper were.”
Indeed. In a climate where download culture seems to have relegated the album to a marketing ploy, 22 Dreams stands as a reminder of days when LPs were designed to challenge as well as thrill the audience.
From the glorious blue-eyed soul of ‘Have You Made Up Your Mind?’ to the staggering psych-pop of Weller/Gallagher collaboration ‘Echoes Around the Sun’ it is crammed full of classic tunes, yet as raw and visceral as anything he’s produced.
Experimental outings such as ‘111’ –inspired by German avant-rockers AMM- and ‘God’ -a spoken word piece by former Ian Brown guitarist Aziz Ibrahim- are also a reminder that Paul’s cultural antennae remain as finely tuned as ever.
“’I’ve had the lyrics for ‘God’ for about seven or eight years. Obviously in the current climate people are focusing on issues like race and religion, but the fact that Aziz is Muslim just gave it an extra dimension.”
If the musical range is staggering, the themes- love, exile, nostalgia, the passage of time – are as universal as music itself.
In career terms, 22 Dreams is as bold, brave and exhilarating as those other classic albums released when Paul was at a creative crossroads -All Mod Cons, Confessions Of A Pop Group and Wildwood. Not that the ever-modest Paul would talk it up.
“The best way I can describe it is as a year in my life” he says of these sublime inner visions.
“We started recording last Spring, and the mood of the album evolved as time went on. Recording at the Barn played a big part in it. You get some beautiful sunsets down there. When we finished the final track, ‘Night Light’s’ there was a huge electrical storm, and we took the microphones outside to capture the sound of the rain falling. It symbolises the year coming full circle.”
Paul Weller: a man for all seasons.
Paul Moody, London. 2008