Over the past few years, every time I’ve interviewed Paul Weller, the legendary English musician known as the Modfather, he mentioned that he was contemplating releasing an acoustic album. For an artist who’s taken as many twists and turns over the course of his 40-plus year career as Bob Dylan, it seemed no idle threat. Still, with a triumphant run of genre-defying albums since the release of 2008’s 22 Dreams, it seemed to me that a bare, stripped-down song cycle could hardly contain Weller’s creative muse.
How wrong I was.
True Meanings, Weller’s 14th studio album since the demise of the Style Council, the group he founded after breaking apart his first band, The Jam, at the height of its fame, is an epic ride, full of reflective, soulful songs, remarkable collaborations, and astonishingly beautiful, yet eminently tasteful orchestrations that only someone with Weller’s rare artistic fearlessness could pull off.
Firstly, the songs are top notch. Too often, acoustic albums leave an artist so naked it becomes all too obvious that their muse has left them. Not here. Weller’s gift for melody, as well as for perfect, classic pop arrangements, is in full flower throughout. The acoustic guitars sound rich and full, as do the stunning orchestral arrangements. At the same time, the strings never swamp the songs; instead serving them perfectly, without ever preening for attention.
“The Soul Searchers,” with its crisp acoustic guitars, shuffling drums and tinkling keyboard fills, kicks things off in engrossing style, before taking off on a jazzy, folky left turn. It’s the perfect scene setter for the rest of True Meanings.
“Glide” follows, with perfect, understated strings, which gives way to the acoustic groove of “Mayfly,” which is lifted by acoustic soloing, rich Hammond organ, piano and delicate horns.
If you’ve heard the singles “Gravity,” “Aspects” and the stellar “Movin’ On,” you’ll have a good sense of what to expect from True Meanings, but in context they feel even richer, and “Old Castles,” a high point for Weller’s band, as well as for the string and vocal flourishes Weller enlists, is sure to warm the hearts of Style Council fans.
The much talked about track titled “Bowie” doesn’t disappoint. Weller wistfully sings “you were just mortal like me,” over a haunting track at once quirky and grand enough to befit its namesake.
The achingly intimate and dark “Wishing Well” showcases vibraphone, “Books” features sitar and violins in equally affecting measure, alongside elegiac guest vocals from Lucy Rose, and the grand closer “White Horses” an organ introduction that gives way to soft, impassioned vocals from Weller, before his able band — Steve Cradock, Andy Crofts, Tommy Van Hell, Steve Pilgrim and Ben Gordelier — kicks in, ever so gently. On an album where Weller hits the mark over and over, it’s an epic, fitting final flourish.
True Meanings finds Weller in top form, bearing all the hallmarks of his best, most adventurous works, this time wrapped in a more laid-back package, though one with fantastic vocals, stirring melodies and lush orchestrations, topped off with typically engaging and powerful lyricism. There are gentle nods to his heroes — most especially Nick Drake and Bill Withers — throughout, but Weller feels as self-confident as ever, and even if True Meanings has a more thoughtful, introspective feel to it than some of Weller’s recent works, it never dwells or feels morbid. In fact, for anyone who is even a casual fan of Weller’s work, it will no doubt be a pleasure to discover him with lots to say, and his gift for stellar lyrics and melodies undiminished.
Rock Cellar Magazine caught up with Paul Weller earlier this month, as he prepared to bring True Meanings to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall in London for two nights in October, complete with orchestra.
Rock Cellar: Every time we’ve talked in the last few years, you’ve said this was kind of on the horizon, what made this the moment to kind of hunker down and get this done?
Paul Weller: I think because, without realizing it, over the last five years or so, I’ve been storing away these little ideas. I put them to one side, really, when I couldn’t find a place on the album I was working on at the time. But I always believed in the songs. And eventually I found I had enough songs for a record.
Rock Cellar: And yet, it’s a hugely collaborative effort. You’ve got a lot of other voices on there — other lyricists, and other players — it’s not just songs you’ve stashed away.
Paul Weller: Yeah, I think it was almost a way to get away from making the same sort of record I’d been making the last few times, because it was so different, bringing in Connor O’Brien and Lucy Rose and Erland Cooper.
Rock Cellar: These are themes and this is a style you’ve touched on in the past, but you’ve never done them in one piece, in what feels almost like a complete movement. Did you think of it thematically? Is there sort of a loose concept holding it together?
Paul Weller: I sort of touch on a few concepts, I suppose, but not in concrete way. I think, more than anything, I just wanted to have it kind of run together but still have a strong dynamic to it. I think thematically, I suppose there’s quite a few songs about loss, and grief, and how people deal with grief, and mortality, and how I suppose that becomes more apparent the older you get.
Rock Cellar: And yet it feels very hopeful. What you’re saying is true, but it also has a real hopefulness to it. A lot of that is in your vocal delivery, which I think is probably some of the best vocals you’ve ever recorded, and there appear to be some characters there, even. Talk a little bit about what you were trying to capture in those vocals.
Paul Weller: I think those things are just decided by the songs. It’s just amazing to me still how, when you first start thinking of the ideas — when you first start writing — and then whatever comes out, aren’t always the same thing. It depends on the melody of the song, or — I don’t know, man — but I think the melody, as it develops, has a lot to do with it. I suppose. I mean, I don’t sit down and think, “I’m going to sound Scottish on this song.” It’s just the way I feel and where the song guides me.
Rock Cellar: Well, there’s always a character telling the story — there’s always a point of view — but I guess I wondered, in listening to this, as there’s such a bare approach, if you were taking that to the next level, or the next extreme.
Paul Weller: Well, maybe. Yeah, it’s possible, man. But if it is, it’s definitely not completely a conscious effort. It feels natural, anyway. But, you know, I think that when you do something like change the approach of the production, or even if you do something as simple as change the sound of a guitar, or even the guitar you’re using, or the tuning, it can change the direction of the song completely. And I think it’s same thing with your voice as well, really.
Rock Cellar: You’ve had the great fortune of playing with Steve Winwood and Dr. John, and so many of your heroes, and whenever we’ve talked about that you’ve always talked about those times as really exciting, as any real fan would. So I was happy to see that The Zombies’ Rod Argent makes an appearance on True Meanings. How did that come about, but also what did that mean to you, working with somebody whose music means so much to you, and what did that mean to you to have him in the studio, collaborating with you?
Paul Weller: Well, far out, really. All these people I’ve grown up with and admired since fucking ever, to be able to work with them, it’s amazing. And to have him be just really up for, I’m incredibly fortunate, man. That Hammond solo he plays on the first track … It’s amazing. He invented that. I’m a massive fan, so it’s bloody amazing. And (folk legends) Danny Thompson and Martin Carthy are on there, too. They’re legends.
Rock Cellar: You hit 60 this year, so you’re part of that rock establishment in some ways, too. Do you feel that? Do you feel the weight of that kind of status or do you just get in there and do it at this point? Do you ever think about it?
Paul Weller: You mean the weight of working with those sort of people?
Rock Cellar: I mean the weight of being Paul Weller, I guess.
Paul Weller: Are you sort of saying that I’m fat, Jeff? [laughter]
Rock Cellar: No. Because I’ll probably see you in person and you’ll pop me! No. Boy, this is going south very quickly. I’m saying that even though you’re a current artist — you’re making new and boundary-pushing music all the time — and yet you still have this legendary status that you have to contend with. Do you ever even think about it, or does it even matter to you?
Paul Weller: Well, I think if you can get through your thirties — and not die of an overdose — if you can get past that point and you live on a bit longer, you just see what happens, I suppose. But what it means to me, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t think about it too much. I don’t walk around thinking, “Oh, I’m a fucking legend.”
Rock Cellar: Noel (Gallagher) would probably take issue with that. [laughter]
Paul Weller: If I had to tell you how I go about working, I’d say I’m just still fucking doing it. I’m just chipping away. Luckily, I’ve been able to do what I love doing. But I think maybe you attain that status because you just get old or something and you don’t die. [laughter]
Rock Cellar: But a lot of people who reach your position will just crank out the greatest hits and collect the check and go home. But you’re still making a real, sincere effort. Every time we talk you’re already onto a new idea, or you’re excited by some new artist or genre you’ve discovered. I mean, this is an album you had in the back of your mind for a couple years now, while you were doing completely different things.
Paul Weller: Yeah, I get that. But there was that soundtrack as well.
Rock Cellar: That’s a good point. Was Jawbone kind of a gateway drug to True Meanings, then? Because there are a lot of the same elements. What you’re doing here is a little more refined, and the song structures are more clearly defined, but thematically, and the overall sound of it, and the approach of it is similar. So was it kind of a testing ground for you, that soundtrack?
Paul Weller: I couldn’t say, particularly. “The Ballad of Jimmy McCabe,” which a lot of people really, really liked, that surprised me. It was just acoustics and vocals, so maybe it gave me a bit of confidence in doing this new album, sure. But I don’t know if they’re directly linked. They’re sort of very separate projects, you know what I mean? A different sort of thinking, really.
These are just good songs, you know, with maybe different ornamentation going on here and there, but at it’s heart, I think, this is just a record of really good songs. That’s the idea, at least. And the next record will be completely different again, won’t it?
Rock Cellar: Well, tell me about it then. What are you going to do next? Go ahead.
Paul Weller: Well, I can’t give too much away. But we’ve cut a couple of new tracks and it’s going to be something else all together, that’s for sure.
Rock Cellar: Are you coming to the States for True Meanings, or are you going to wait until that next record?
Paul Weller: We’ll probably come next year. Right now, we’ve got two dates in October with an orchestra and stuff, but it’s just too expensive to tour, so I don’t think we’ll take it anywhere else, really. But we’re going to film it, and hopefully that will come out soon. I mean, I’d love to take this record on the road properly, but that’s a lot of money. It’s as simple as that, really.