What a great, sprawling, glorious mess of an album this is. You never know what you’re going to get with Paul Weller – he’s one of music’s most prodigious dabblers, equally fluent in rock, soul, jazz, electronica, atonal contemporary, or acoustic folk. I know he’s not averse to the Grand Artistic Statement, either, so for weeks I’ve been poring over his latest album, wondering if there was some secret code or theme (for example: if it’s called 22 Dreams, why does it have 21 tracks? Why does it begin with “Light Nights” and end with “Night Lights”?). After all, Weller’s been pulling off this sort of high-handed artistic trick ever since he cast off the taut punk aesthetic of the Jam and went off on the long-winded soul- and jazz-inspired rambles of Style Council.
But along the way, I found myself utterly seduced by something much simpler: melody. It's an old-fashioned concept, really, in this rap- and hip-hop dominated era, but there it is, staring me right in the face.
I have to confess to a bad habit of trawling through an album on the first listen, looking for plum tracks to pluck off for my iPod (Ah, the curse of the digital age!). As I started working my way through 22 Dreams, I had to deal with a non-stop barrage of winners – the anthemic raga-flavored “Light Nights,” the buzzy uptempo rock-and-roll of “22 Dreams,” the loose-limbed syncopation of “All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You),” and the funky soul of “Have You Made Up Your Mind,” just to mention the first four tracks. These are songs that short-circuit your musical memory, with such satisfying melodic lines that you’re instantly certain you’ve known them for years. I have to surrender; they're all iPod-worthy.
That clear rock groove dissolves next into a stretch of jazzier pieces — the shimmery atmospheric “Empty Ring,” the tenderly mournful acoustic piano piece “Invisible,” and the infectious samba “Cold Moments.” We’re not in sing-along territory anymore, but there’s still a through-line of tunefulness that’s hard to resist. (I’ll admit I skip over “Song For Alice,” which despite an insistent rhythm track never fights its way out of the electronic haze of experimental sounds.)
You hit solid ground again with “Black River,” a likeably shambling old-fashioned softshoe, right down to the plinky piano; there are spacey sound effects here too (what a weird use of Graham Coxon’s guest turn on guitar), but they actually enhance the song’s jaunty roller-coaster refrain. It’s followed by “Why Walk When You Can Run,” a folky acoustic charmer that you could almost pass off as vintage Cat Stevens. The dangerously yearning tango “One Bright Star,” the folky cello-and-piano valediction “Where’er You Go,” the rollicking shanty “Sea Spray” – they’re all laced with melodic hooks that are totally compelling.
I realize that I’m not even listening to the lyrics at all, which is completely unlike me. I keep trying to focus on the words, but while certain allusive phrases stick out – notably the oft-repeated title phrases – story-telling takes a back seat to mood-setting, and the flow of melody sidetracks me every time.
Not only that, but after a few runs through I find myself looking forward to the instrumental stuff too, like the tender Satie-like piano piece “Lullaby Fur Kinder.” I don’t even skip over the fierce spoken-word track “God.” A couple of the more cacophonous tracks like “Echoes Round the Sun” and “111” still elude me, but strangely enough, I don't switch them off, I just zone out while they're on. (Perhaps that's the most appropriate response, come to think of it – the whole point of those pieces may well be to induce a musical trance. I wouldn’t put that past Paul Weller.) And by now, I'm getting hooked on the flow of the album, feeling how each song dovetails into the next. Not like chapters in a novel or pictures in an exhibition, mind you — they just sound right together. It's baffling indeed.
Bottom line: I still haven’t figured out what this album is “about.” Unless it’s about music – which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad answer.Powered by Sidelines