We may be cursed to be in the midst a global pandemic, buffeted by all of its stresses and pain. But everyone knows that art provides succour, that music is the most reliable balm. And for many there is further significant comfort to be drawn from the knowledge that Paul Weller is in the midst of an unbelievably prolific purple patch. Paul Weller will not let us down when we need him most.
On May 14th, Paul Weller releases his 16th solo album since his self-titled debut in 1992, his fourth in as many years and his second in just under twelve months following June 2020’s magnificent, chart-topping On Sunset. It’s not hyperbole to state that this new album, titled Fat Pop (Volume 1), is among his most compelling collections, bar none, including all of his era-defining work in the 1970s and ‘80s with The Jam and The Style Council. It’s an absolute scorcher.
When lockdown was declared in March 2020, Paul Weller decided immediately that he wanted something to focus on, since it seemed unlikely he’d be able to tour On Sunset as planned that summer.
“I had lots of ideas stored up on my phone,” he explains down that same handset, speaking from outside his London home, “and at least this gave me an opportunity to develop them.” So he started to record songs on his own, doing just vocals, piano and guitar, then sending those sound files to his core band members such as drummer Ben Gordelier, Steve Cradock on guitar and various other instruments, and bassist Andy Crofts for them to add their parts. “It was a bit weird not being together, but at least it kept the wheels rolling. I’d have gone potty otherwise.”
The band reconvened at Weller’s Black Barn studio in Surrey during the summer when restrictions were lifted to finish the work, with several of the songs being cut live. By this stage, the shape of the album was clear to all. Weller wanted to deliver an album of singles, twelve short, distinct blasts, each strong enough that they could stand alone if so desired.
“That was a conscious decision,” he confirms. “I even thought about putting every song out as a single first then gathering them all on an album, but that wasn’t practical at the moment. They all have that strength and immediacy, I think, and they’re all short, three minutes or so maximum.”
Producer Jan ‘Stan’ Kybert was so taken with the concept that he half-jokingly suggested that the album be called Greatest Hits. “I quite liked the idea and every song does stand up as a single, I think,” chuckles Weller, “but no, we couldn’t do that really.”
Instead, he plumped for Fat Pop (Volume 1). “I thought we’d add Volume 1 to it just to keep my options open in the future for a second volume!” The title track, a tight, heavy blast of ultra-modern funk, is itself the conceptual key to the whole album. “It’s a celebration of music and what it’s given us all. No matter what situation you are in, and we’re in one now, music doesn’t let you down, does it?”
As ever, Weller’s sonic masterplan was to avoid whatever had recently preceded it. “After [2018’s] True Meanings I thought I wouldn’t have any acoustic guitars for a little while, so I’ve largely avoided those with On Sunset and with Fat Pop,” he says. “But more than anything I wanted something vibey, something we could play live.” He laughs ruefully at the irony of that. “God knows when that will be, bearing in mind where we are with the virus. But in the imaginary gig in my mind I can see us playing all of the songs on Fat Pop live, along with the songs from On Sunset, blending them with some of the old favourites too. What a great set that would be.”
Live is where he imagines On Sunset and Fat Pop (Volume 1) working in tandem, because they don’t act as companion piece albums otherwise. “On Sunset was quite lavish in places, whereas with this one I wanted to limit it in some ways, make the production less expansive.”
Beyond that desire to keep it frill-free and tight, sonically Fat Pop (Volume 1) is a diverse selection of sounds. No one style dominates. There’s the synth-heavy, future-wave strut of Cosmic Fringes, the stately balladeering of Still Glides The Stream, Testify’s moving-on-up soul, and the kind of dramatic three minute pop symphonies on Failed, True and Shades of Blue with which Paul Weller has hooked in generation after generation of devotee.
More than sonic plans, though, Weller set himself the same task as he does before any recording. “Whenever I make an album I’m always just trying to at least match what’s gone before because each time I think the bar’s been raised. If all goes to plan, sometimes I manage to go over that bar too.”
Sometimes he does, sometimes he really does.
Shades Of Blue
Cobweb / Connections
In Better Times
Still Glides The Stream