Paul Weller: “Wake Up the Nation”

Paul Weller is angry again– and thank God. Just listen to him spit piss and vinegar on the title track of his new album, Wake Up the Nation, wagging his 52-year-old finger at the likes of Facebook and cell phones. God bless him, he somehow makes it work; along with Graham Parker, Ian Hunter, and Elvis Costello, Weller is one of rock’s greatest cranky old men. That he hasn’t sounded this angry in quite some time has been, generally speaking, a detriment to his music, which has, in large patches of his post-Style Council career, been characterized by a certain, workmanlike sturdiness rather than true inspiration.

But in his rekindled anger he seems to have recaptured his spirit of adventure. Make no mistake: Wake Up the Nation is righteously pissed off, but it’s not a technophobe’s lament at the evils of the social networking era– though I suppose there is some of that in the lyrics. Nor is it the album of a political revolutionary, though it was released on the eve of a big election in Weller’s native UK– and once again, politics are not totally outside the album’s sphere of awareness. But what Weller’s railing against here, it seems to me, is a more general spirit of complacency– the sort of complacency that might tell a 52-year old rock icon that his days of boldness and speaker-rattling musical innovation are well behind him, best left to the younger generation. Weller gets the last laugh: Not only is his new album a bigger badass than nearly anything recently released by his peers, but it’s more vibrant and thrillingly cantankerous than just about anything to come from the upstarts, either.

To be fair, Weller does not draw inspiration solely from some well of pent-up anger, nor is Nation a comeback album, strictly speaking; it’s more like the second phase of an artistic second wind, following on the heels of 2008’s mesmerizing, sprawling double album 22 Dreams. That album wasn’t angry at all: It was reflective, pastoral, impressionistic. Wake Up the Nation draws from the same creative well, and indeed recalls that album in its freewheeling energy and stylistic boundlessness, but in other ways it’s the exact opposite. It’s noisy, chaotic, more about studio clatter than wide-open spaces. And it’s as compact as the last album was expansive; its sixteen cuts whiz by at light speed, generally clocking in around the two-minute mark and piling on top of one another with the sort of momentum that suggests an extraordinary burst of in-studio inspiration.

And its use of the studio as a launching pad makes the album a bit of an oddity. Some musicians are inspired by live performance, but fail to capture that energy in the enclosed spaces of a recording studio. Weller isn’t one of them. He explores the studio’s endless possibilities here and enjoys the recording process as an opportunity for spirited improvisation; his lyrics were mostly written on the fly, and the chaotic arrangements suggest a singer and a studio band who aren’t hard at work, but busy at play.

This kind of record emanates a certain hipness, but Weller is in full ownership of his status as a rock and roll dinosaur– a purveyor of so-called “dad rock” whose love of tradition has given him the reputation of a bit of a fuddy-duddy. Even 22 Dreams, in all its ramshackle brilliance, was dismissed in some circles for its adherence to classicist rock, folk, soul, and jazz templates– never mind the energy and furious vision with which Weller strung them together. No one will be able to ignore the blistering sonic mischief of Wake Up the Nation, an album that implicitly reclaims the artistic validity of an older generation of rockers. Weller still loves old-timey rock and roll idioms– he’s still restless, still inspired to be a part of the first generation to truly be raised on rock– but this album is his waving of a giant middle finger in the face of anyone who thinks traditional rock forms have exhausted their intrigue. Witness how he constructs pure electric mayhem around what’s basically a Little Richard bopper in “Moonshine,” or how he weaves together British psychedelia with Bowie-esque weirdness in “Andromeda.” Witness how “No Tears to Cry,” basically an old-school soul ballad, sparkles with mysterious depth. (Also note how one Richard Hawley is recruited to play guitar on the latter track!)

But if Wake Up the Nation is an album about tradition and its continued vitality, it’s also an album about the personal. It’s the old Dylan trick of taking a familiar form and making it into a vehicle of personal expression, something exemplified nowhere as well as on “Trees,” a five-part suite crammed into a couple of minutes that runs from psychedelia into New Orleans R&B and tells the story– in five miniature character studies– of his late father’s final days in a rest home. It’s personal, impressionistic, and deeply spiritual. Elsewhere, there’s “Find the Torch, Burn the Plans,” Weller’s most shamelessly anthemic cut in a while, which could be a call to political revolution or a manifesto for Weller’s own forward-thinking music.

Indeed, Weller is looking backward and forward at the same time here, a trait seen in his invitation to such collaborators as Kevin Shields and his old Jam buddy Bruce Foxton. The latter shows up to play bass in “Fast Car Slow Traffic,” a cut that’s significant for Weller’s patching things up with Foxton but also for its lyric. The song is seemingly about exactly what it says in its title, and at face value you could take it as another instance of Weller in old codger mode. I tend to think of it as a metaphor for the album; among his peers and his younger competition alike, Weller is a fast car stuck in slow traffic, moving at a breakneck creative pace even as everyone around him seems, by comparison, to be hardly moving at all.

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