Surrounded by a haze of day-glow fluorescent-tube lighting, Paul Weller looks out into the world with a blurry stoic business-like gaze on the cover of his 11th studio album; as though posing for a psychedelic Paul Smith ad campaign. Touted and applauded as the record in which the Woking beacon of all that is mod finally strays from his signature style, to go all-out kosmiche and psych, Sonik Kicks undeniably seems a risky venture on the surface.
At the age of 53, Weller has decided it’s time he listened to those David Bowie Berlin-period albums he borrowed back in the late 70s: a time when – in my opinion, he was at his peak, and hungry – his inaugural Jam worshiped at the alter of the latter day musical Saints John & Paul of Lennon & McCartney, Peter of Townsend, and Steve of Marriott; a time when his conversion on the road to Tamla and Stax marked that blazing power-trio out as being a bit special. Since then, via his Francophone and La Dolce Vita cool, but left-leaning effete Style Council, Weller has constantly shown that – as the old Brian Wilson lyric confessed – he “…just wasn’t made for these times”. Fast-forward to the here-and-now and we find the rebarbative bestowed ‘modfather’ adopting a new set of influences.
literally “sonik kicking-off”, the opening parley ‘Green’, oscillates, throbs and crackles with a static-charge of aimless pretensions; messily tripping-out over various Krautrock stereotypes and buzzing dial-twiddling trickery. Weller motionlessly reads-out the fatuous lyrics in an automotive fashion; “Take-off/Unearthing/Inside”. If you grit your teeth through this confusing number then you will be awarded, as the next tune ‘The Attic’ unfurls from the dying embers of its predecessor in a more sedate manner. Wistfully enchanting and floated on a bed of pastoral psych, this blissful stirring interlude shows some promise, yet its spell is broken by the polka-mocking, Love meets The Last Shadow Puppets, gallop of ‘Kling I Klang’ – Kraftwerk‘s legendary studio name is worked into some bewildering pun, for a reason I cannot fathom. The in-search-of-space leanings that so shape Weller’s “neu!” direction prove to be at best intriguing, and at worst, merely hung-onto tracks like window-dressing. From the interregnum and vignette passage of the Joe Meek vs George Martin satellite waltz ‘Sleep Of The Serene’, to the solar-wind blowing space-rock alluded ‘Dragonfly’, these cosmic explorations can be quite patchy.
At the start of the review I mentioned the Thin White Duke’s influential presence; haunting this latest recording, and a source from which to plunder. Unfortunately whilst the German absorbed Bowie can be heard on some of Sonik Kicks, it’s his later, and more bland, Hours-period material that permeates the observational critique of our times, ‘That Dangerous Age’ rocker. Strangely, Weller comes across as a resigned Damon Albarn on the Blur-esque ‘When Your Garden’s Overgrown’, and on the hypnotic plaintive Dears like ‘Paper Chase’; whilst taking on Kasabian at the riding the esoteric Arabian nights escapist blueprint on the rousing ‘Drifters’. He also joins in with The Horrors by convincingly going for a similar meander through the Gothic-psych garage template, to enact out his own swirling organ shoegaze fantasies on ‘Around The Lake’. However,what he can’t quite convincingly pull-off is Augustus Pablo dub: the indulgent 6-minute plus – by far the longest song on this generous 14-track spread – ‘Study In Blue’ duet, languishes in a stew of painfully bland reggae and ska; serving no real-purpose, and failing to fit in with the general feel of the album.
As if a reminder, or a revision, of what Weller does best, ‘By The Waters’ is an earnest, sumptuous – though stripped – little romantic interlude. The starkly worn-in and unpretentious strains of his tormented soulful voice have never sounded so sagacious, earthy and great – by far the most accomplished song here. Trouble is, its with-strained delicate violins accompaniment and minimal backing is, just like ‘Study In Blue’, at odds with the rest of the albums more fizzing electric sound.
By all means Weller’s latest attempt to remove himself from his comfort zone should be encouraged; and I have to admit, on repeated plays this neon-lit shock of space-fueled dad-rock does get better. But it’s still far too conventional – the so-called loud-hailing rhetoric of experimental changes and new glittering sound-pallet don’t quite match the exuberance and saber-rattling (though to be fair this mostly came from the press and not Weller himself) we’ve been promised – and lacks any serious venom or spite.