ailed as a demigod in his native Britain, former Jam/Style Council frontman Paul Weller can hardly get arrested on our shores—his last studio album, 2000’s rather dour Heliocentric didn’t even merit a US release, and his lone US Top 40 hit came in 1984. And while his fortunes in America aren’t likely to change overnight, Illumination, which debuted at No. 1 on the UK charts in late 2002, could actually go a long way towards getting Weller some new fans on our side of the pond.
Easily the most satisfying album of his decade-plus solo career, Illumination marks the first time in ages that Weller has sounded at ease in his own skin: mellow, upbeat, yet aggressive and gritty in all the right places. Weller’s voice has aged like a fine whiskey—smooth, yet biting—and his songwriting skills have never been sharper. On standout tracks like “It’s Written In The Stars” and “Leafy Mysteries”—coincidentally the album’s first two U.K. singles—the soulful guitar rock is touched with sparks of invention—a sampled horn track here, a jazzy freak-out segment there—that keep the proceedings from getting stale. Acoustic and electric guitars abound, nicely augmented by some pleasantly retro-sounding organ riffing and rock-solid drumming. On the whole, the album sounds mature and well-crafted, like a finely made piece of heavy oak furniture. And if you’re one of those people who doesn’t have an appreciation for an expertly made wardrobe or chest of drawers, chances are the more “trad-rock” leanings of Paul Weller won’t appeal to you either. This is not the angry young man that fronted the Jam all those years ago, and this album likely won’t do much for “the kids” out there.
I suspect the guest appearances from Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones , Oasis’ Noel Gallagher and Gem Archer are more for the British audience’s benefit than ours—Jones, for his part, manages to nearly ruin a perfectly good tune (“Call Me No. 5”) by needlessly sharing the vocals with Weller. (As an aside: Christ, can someone explain to me why the Stereophonics are such hot shit over there anyway? I mean, if Oasis started as Beatles rip-off artists, what can you think of an Oasis knock off like that lot?) Regardless, the only guest appearance that matters here is Noonday Underground’s Simon Dine, who produces only two tracks, but seems to have left his brand-new-retro footprints all over the proceedings. A full-length collaboration between Weller and Dine would likely be fabulous, but for now, this will have to do.
Innovative in all the right places, yet as immediately comfortable as a favorite denim jacket (and also including three bonus tracks and a five-track DVD), Illumination is just the thing to slip on the stereo when you’re in the mood for something familiar, yet modern.