Paul Weller's return to Island Records for the first time since 2000's Heliocentric seems like a homecoming of sorts, especially so given the eclectic, engaged nature of his new album. 22 Dreams is like an old-school Island album from the label's Seventies heyday, progressive (but absolutely not prog-rock), tinged with jazz and folksy elements, alert to the turning seasons, capturing the rural breezes, open to hope and fellowship – and, most importantly, its soul rooted in thoughtful, occasionally inspired songwriting. For me, it's the best thing he's done – but then I never much cared for The Jam. Or The Style Council. Or much of his previous solo stuff.
What's impressive is the sheer breadth of musical vision in these 21 songs, from the nu-folk opener "Light Nights" to its obverse urban closer "Night Lights", taking in all manner of rock, soul and R&B variants, some quite unexpected, even shocking. Who'd have thought Paul Weller could be found indulging in abstract electronica ("111"), soundscaped spoken-word poetry ("God"), or barrelhouse piano and spoons ("Black River")? Or the jazz-rock of "Song For Alice", a tribute to Alice Coltrane, whose mélange of piano glissandi, backwards tapes, wisps of sitar and Robert Wyatt's haunting trumpet evokes the jazz harpist's swirling style? Weller seems to have lost the fear of artsy-fartiness that condemned him to dad-rock drudgery. The result is this extraordinary offering, his very own White Album.
Wyatt is a significant influence; another is Simon Dine, whose arrange-ments are a crucial feature of 22 Dreams, providing on the reflective "Empty Ring" the kind of depth that Rich Tufo's strings brought to Curtis Mayfield's work, while employing marimba and Moog to bring a different kind of energy to the railroad rocker "Push It Along". Multi-instrumentalist Steve Cradock is a notable contributor, and Noel Gallagher does his best work in years – and sounds like he's enjoying himself – on the psychedelic rocker "Echoes Around the Sun".
But Weller is the keystone, writing with maturity and confidence about things such as fatherhood ("Why Walk When You Can Run"), and performing with the wistful, elegiac air of Springsteen on "Where'er Ye Go" and a lilting tropicalia calm on the samba groove of "One Bright Star", and with his native rocker's ebullience on the title track.
Of all the generation of 1977, Weller was probably the most rooted, the one you'd least expect to develop an exotic musical imagination; but those roots, it seems, have nourished his muse to an extent currently unrivalled by his peers.
Pick of the album:'Song For Alice', 'Light Nights', 'Night Lights', 'Empty Ring', 'Where'er Ye Go'