(Parlophone, out Fri 14 Sep 2018)
Weller‘s of an age now where he could be sitting back, tossing off a so-so album once every five or six years, waiting for the usual round of acclamation afforded to an elder statesman, and then sodding off back to the mansion/golf course/beach. But the man’s not like that. He’s a lifer, and as prolific now in the fifth decade of his musical career as he ever has been. He just can’t help himself. This follow up to last year’s A Kind Revolution is the shortest gap he’s had between albums of original material since his self-titled debut and Wild Wood back in 1993.
He doesn’t have the same phases to his career that he used to though. He was punk, then soul boy, then modfather. He was, as the song says, the Changingman. It’s difficult to say what phase he’s in now, apart from simply being evergreen. He is still changing from album to album, but for at least the past decade he’s made like yer cool uncle Paul showing off his eclectic record collection. He’s still experimenting, but no longer attempting wholesale re-inventions. Each album has simply given a different stylistic trimming to the fundamental Wellerness, be it the Krautrocky edges of Sonik Kicks, or the swampy rock of Saturn’s Pattern. True Meanings is a pastoral one, and one that’s strongly committed to that vibe too. It’s his most cohesive set style-wise in quite some years.
He’s been in this territory before, of course – Wild Wood (the song) being an obvious example, English Rose being the most beautiful – but not for an entire album. It calls to mind The Spinning Top, the acoustic album his one-time collaborator, Graham Coxon, put out on “finding” Bert Jansch. In fact, the jazz-folk opener The Soul Searchers is Weller’s own Janschian moment; moody, plucked acoustic guitar eventually dissolves into shimmering strings and a more obviously Welleresque Hammond organ break. Like the rest of the album, it doesn’t skimp on instrumentation and production is sharp. The varying guitar textures come through at all points.
The album doesn’t alter much from there. Glide is soft, short and sweet with a lullaby-like quality to its refrain, and a chamber quartet middle eight. Mayfly is more soulful, but no more up-tempo, with subtle horns on the chorus. The strings are back on Gravity for another low-energy number. It takes the jazzy syncopation of Old Castles (echoes of Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street) to shake things up a little, but only a little, before the gently rocking What Would He Say? restores the status quo. With it’s possibly theological bent (“If he is watching still / I’d feel ashamed”, “All those high class games at the altar”) and minor-key verse it looks to be going heavy places, but its flip to a major key feels like a cop out.
There’s a Bowie tribute on here, named simply Bowie, in which God makes another appearance, even if He is “only just a melody”. It’s an odd sort of tribute that could hardly be less Bowie musically (another guitar and strings number), and seems to use the late singer simply as a tool for Weller’s self-reflection on life and legacy – “You were just mortal like me”, “We all have to go”. But Weller’s not for the grave yet, not if the dirty old man lyrics of Come Along are anything to go by – “I’ve been watching you awhile / Put me to the test / Wondering what is going on / Underneath that dress”.
That failsafe of the mystical English pastoralist – the sitar – takes a bow on Books. A music-head like Weller would have no truck with notions of “cultural appropriation”, and it proves one of the album’s loveliest moments. Movin’ On and May Love Travel With You are lushly orchestrated, almost Hollywood numbers that usher in the closer White Horses, which again introduces interesting instrumentation (an oboe), and finally gets up a head of steam with a building outro which should be given longer to stick around, if only to alleviate the gentleness of what’s gone before.
All of this is very easy to listen to – too easy, and there’s too much of it. The album could easily lose a couple of tracks – Wishing Well, and the awfully named Aspects with its bland lyrics (“It’s not in the way / It’s not in your hair / You won’t find it / Under your chair”) are more of the same, and might in the old days have found themselves filling B-sides.
True Meanings doesn’t visit many emotional peaks and troughs either. There isn’t the yearning of English Rose or the barely contained intensity of Foot Of The Mountain. It’s acoustic Weller, but not as we’ve previously known him. Weller can swagger and brood and ache and burn, and there’s little of that in evidence. This is the folk equivalent of the pipe ‘n’ slippers jazz with which he closed Wild Wood all those years ago – Moon On Your Pyjamas. Nice and noodly, but unlikely to set the heart a-flutter. Having said that, the album’s subtle enough that maybe, just maybe, it may only reveal its full colour in time.