Paul Weller: “22 Dreams”
Arguably more than anyone else in rock, Paul Weller proves that “traditional” and “exciting” don’t aways have to be contradictory terms. Ever since his time with The Jam and Style Council, Weller has led a relatively prolific and consistently compelling solo career, all the while refusing to break a single rule in the rock and roll playbook. Sure, he’s experimented with a few different styles– rock, folk, soul, and jazz– but he never veers very far from the tropes of whatever genre he’s working in. He’s arguably rock’s greatest living classicist, a man devoted to preserving all the genre’s customs and conventions, so it’s not too surprising that, on his ninth solo recording, he turns to one of the few great traditions of rock and roll that, until now, he has yet to touch– that of the sprawling, expansive double album.
What’s especially remarkable about it is that, actually, the twenty-one songs on 22 Dreams (that final dream refers to a short story printed in the insert) are all crammed onto a single disc, at least on CD. Still, there’s no denying that long, luxurious feel, that sense that the artist has way too many good ideas to fit onto a single album, so he’s made something that meanders and takes weird tangents and arguably bites off more than it can chew, a record that’s great not in spite of, but precisely because of its scope and its messiness. In that sense, it’s very much in the tradition of The White Album, but there’s a key difference; if that album is marked by its chaotic, ramshackle feel, Weller’s album is notable for its elegance and its sense of pacing. True to its title, the album does indeed unfold like a dream, an organic tapestry that ebbs and flows but always feels like it’s going where it’s supposed to go. It’s not a scattershot collection of good ideas and half-baked experiments, like so many great (and not so great) double albums are, but a seamless and sophisticated tapestry, woven together by a masterful composer and seasoned recordmaker who knows how to take twenty-one songs of all different shapes and sizes and put them together in a way that’s not only natural, but positively addictive in its seamlessness and its momentum.
And what makes Weller so adept at making what could have been a mess of an album into something so cohesive and effortless sounding? Probably a lot of things, but chief among them is his knowledge of rock tradition, how things have worked in the past and how best they might work now. And so while 22 Dreams runs the gamut of styles and genres, it’s unmistakably the work of a dogged traditionalist; so, while the album mixes genres and moods to great effect, each song plays out exactly how it’s supposed to without breaking any rules or blurring any boundaries. And that might sound a bit dull, but actually it’s anything but, as Weller is so passionate about his craft that, rather than be tamed by it, he proves how exciting craft can be. This music may look to the past for its inspiration, but from it it draws a stunning and resilient creativity. Just listen to how Weller mines British folk music on acoustic numbers like “Light Nights” and the soaring climax, “Sea Spray”; in form, these songs sound like they could’ve been written a century ago, but the performance and writing are so vibrant that these songs are wonderfully in the moment. Likewise with the horn-drenched soul-rock of the title cut, or the chugging rock of “Push it Along,” songs that are deliberately classicist but no less inspired or creative because of it. Even when the album does go off on weird tangents, as on the quirky instrumental “111” or the spoken-word interlude “God,” Weller’s obviously drawing his inspiration from the classic double albums, albums that were long enough to make room for strange little tangents and even work them into the fabric of the record itself.
And thinking of this album as a fabric or a tapestry is certainly fitting. Weller hasn’t just made a batch of great songs that mine the disparate elements of British rock; he’s actually made a suite, a piece of music that unfolds with an almost narrative (or at least thematic) thrust, with each songs sounding like it was meant to be placed exactly where it is, no matter how different from the preceding song it might be. Weller wanted the album to resemble the changing of the seasons, and indeed, there’s an uncannily organic feel to the whole thing; it begins with gentle folk before seguing into rock, then soul, then jazz, then back to rock and, finally, folk again. Each section of the album is sequenced perfectly, and it’s a testament to Weller’s skills as a writer and as a recordmaker that the soulful, jazz-inflected piano tunes like “Invisible” (which sounds like something a smoother-voiced Tom Waits might have cut thirty years ago) and “Cold Moments” (Weller’s best Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye homage yet) feel not like tangents, but like integral pieces of the album’s landscape. And as the album travels through different genres, it also plays out like a travelogue through different emotions, making it all the more rewarding and sophisticated.
Of course, listening to the music, it doesn’t ever feel like Weller went into it with any grand concept or ambition; it’s very unassuming music that doesn’t call attention to its greatness, as if Weller and his band were just making music in some basement studio and didn’t even know they were being taped– a feeling that’s enhanced by the communal spirit of the album, as Weller is joined on a couple of tracks be members of Brit rock royalty Oasis and Blur. It’s Weller’s album, though– his vision, his unique character, and, in the end, his greatest work yet as a solo artist, an intoxicating and compulsive piece of music that proves traditional craft can be unique, vibrant, and utterly riveting.