Published Jan 01, 2006A quarter-century ago, "In the City" introduced an 18-year-old Paul Weller and his first band, the Jam, to an audience in the throes of the British punk revolution. A two-minute volley of spit and sandpaper, its lyric proposed Weller's notion of "the young idea," suggesting that an ideological divide separated everyone below the age of 25 from the clueless majority above it.
Throughout the Jam (1977 to 1982), the vastly underrated and misunderstood Style Council (1983 to 1989) and his early solo career, Weller's songs have often sprung from that same romantic devotion to the young idea as if the clock was ticking and he had to say all he could before age and decay robbed him of his vitality.
So it should have come as little surprise in the late '90s when Weller his 40th birthday knocking at his door courted meltdown. Alleged public spectacles aside (a Paris hotel room reportedly barely survived his fury), 1997's Heavy Soul and its frankly awful follow-up, 2000's Heliocentric, suggested he was in artistic free-fall, much of those albums sounding rote, detached and no damn fun.
But Weller has never been easily written off. And in much the same spirit that the Style Council's crash and burn spurred him on to creative and commercial rebirth under his own name, the widespread disappointment in Heliocentric is partly why his new album, Illumination, is his best in over a decade.
Happy and healthy in Los Angeles during a rare North American tour, Weller confirms that the writing and recording of Illumination regenerated his creative fire.
"I'm a great believer that you're only as good as your last record," he says. "There's always that driving voice inside me that says, Perhaps you could do better the next time.' That propels me to try to make the music better.
"If you make records long enough which I have been doing, obviously not everything's always gonna be great, unfortunately. But I have to see the good times and bad times as all one thing. It's a learning process; I can't disown stuff just because it didn't work out."
Illumination is a direct reaction against the experience of making Heliocentric, which suffered not only for having been made in the midst of what will hopefully prove to be a premature midlife crisis, but also for being the victim of too much technological fuss something Weller thought he'd left behind after the Style Council's synthesiser experiments became stale-dated virtually before the band left the studio.
"[Heliocentric] took such a long time to mix seven or eight weeks which I thought was ridiculous for what I do, which is essentially live recording," he says. "I sat in a studio for weeks, making sure that the hi-hat sounded right or some fucking nonsense. And I vowed that I was never going to do that again."
Recorded quickly at his and Noel Gallagher's home studios, Illumination boasts an energy and a lightness of touch that had begun to wither as long ago as Stanley Road, the 1995 album that restored Weller's iconic status in England during the height of Britpop. Illumination's unashamed themes of personal redemption are indeed reflective of the singer emerging from a dark period, but they've also taken on an unexpected universal poignancy in the midst of these troubled times.
"I think songs always do that anyway, but I suppose in light of recent events, definitely so," he agrees. "I don't know whether it sounds pompous or grand, but my whole reasoning behind this record was to try and put a bit of love back in the world."
And, whether he intended it or not, to prove that the young idea is only a state of mind.