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It’s always going to be difficult reviewing a Paul Weller album. The Jam, Weller’s first band, contributed to the soundtrack of my teenage years, as did the Style Council, his second outfit. And since the latter’s demise in 1988, Weller has created a very special place for himself in the history of British music through the Britpop days of the 1990s. But More Modern Classics does him few favours.
The Jam were, among many other things, a rather angry band. In The Eton Rifles, or Going Underground, you hear passion, feeling in Weller’s voice. The Style Council, although many Weller fans will never forgive me for saying this, played jazz of astounding beauty. But Weller solo has been a very mixed bag — while an artist should have range, depth, variety, a consistent voice is not a bad thing, and a retrospective such as More Modern Classics shows into stark relief an inconsistency in Paul Weller’s output over the years.
There are, to be sure, classics — Come On, Let’s Go from 2005’s As Is Now is one of the few tracks in this compilation to capture some of the old energy of The Jam, borrowing its chord progression quite clearly from Jam classic That’s Entertainment and its guitars from the Undertones’ That Dangerous Age, which first appeared on 2012’s Sonik Kicks, odd though it undeniably is, has a lot of shoop-shoop charm and a pleasing amount of the kind of quirkiness one would not always expect from Weller. Wake Up The Nation, from the eponymous 2010 record, has some of the brittle edge and sharpness that one expects from Paul Weller — “Take your face out of Facebook and get off the phone,” is almost, but not quite, “Sup up your beer and collect your fags.”
But for all the barbed brittleness of a Push It Along or Flame Out! (You’re always taking a bit of a risk using an exclamation point in a song title, but Flame Out! just about justifies it), there’s a mis-step. Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea, from the critically-acclaimed 2000 release Heliocentric, is simply a bad song — dreary, slow and disappointing. Studio 150, the 2004 collection of covers, provides us with Wishing On A Star, an ill-judged jazz-pop plodder with a by-the-numbers 1970s disco-pop backing.
Calling your new compilation More Modern Classics is something of an exercise in hubris — not only are the songs on this album classics, claims Paul Weller, but so are my previous efforts. And some — but by no means all — of the of the 21 tracks in this retrospective could reasonably be considered classics. By the time The Jam released Beat Surrender in 1982, Paul Weller had established himself as a major player on the British music scene. The Style Council brought his music to a wider audience, and his solo work cemented his place in the Britpop pantheon. His influence on acts from Oasis to Ocean Colour Scene — indeed, you’ll find Noel Gallagher and most of OCS on various tracks on this album — is undeniable. But, like any musical hero, he is at best a flawed genius, and for every classic on this record, there’s a filler. If you’re a Paul Weller fan, you’ll already own all of these songs. If you’re not yet, buy yourself a copy of Wild Wood, and then you’ll see what all the fuss was about.
Click here to listen to Wake Up The Nation from More Modern Classics: