You've probably heard of Paul Weller by now. You probably know all the words to most of his 57 top 40 hit singles, can remember the rush of clasping onto any of his 26 top 40 albums for the first time, be they made with The Jam, The Style Council or on his own. The man's music has defined eras, informed generations, dictated fashion and dominated airwaves. And he's worn damn fine shoes throughout.
But 25 years (oh yes!) after his first album, Weller is still fired by the same impetus before starting work on his next record as he was back at the beginning. That being, can he make another album as good or even better than the last? That was his state of mind whilst mulling over his next collection following 2000's 'Heliocentric' and 2001's 'Days Of Speed'.
“I was kind of thinking that if I never make another record in my life, I want to go out on a high note. Not in a negative way, but that was the motivation behind it. I just wanted to make every track strong and make the best album that I could. And in a very prosaic way I knew I had to make a record because that's what I do. I'm a songwriter, I write songs that I hope last and affect people.”
Working in three day spurts at his own Black Barn Studios in Surrey and at Noel Gallagher's Wheeler End Studio in Bucks, he set about this quest once again. He decided he'd play the majority of instruments on the album himself – although there are high-calibre guests throughout: Noel Gallagher and Gem Archer from Oasis, Kelly Jones from The Stereophonics, Steve Cradock and Damon Minchella from Ocean Colour Scene, one-time Stone Rose Aziz Ibrahim and Carleen Anderson. He felt that accompanied by Steve White on drums he could accomplish the recording with the minimum of fuss. And that by producing it himself (save for a couple of tracks he shared production and writing duties with Simon Dine of Noonday Underground) he'd also get the most raw, honest sound. He guessed right on both counts.
'Illumination' is as good a solo album as Weller's made. Indeed it's as good an album as he's made no matter how far back into the mists of time one cares to peer. Paul shrugs off any suggestions that its mosaic of different sounds and influences, from funky folk to heavy soul to dusty psychedelia to Indian raga, marks any kind of brave new departure.
“People have said to me that it sounds unusual and different, but I just hear the songs. That's all I'm really interested in. Writing good songs and making them sound as fresh and timeless as possible. You know, if you stumble on something new along the way that's great. But I'm not into new sounds just for the sake of it. I'm a songwriter.
And on this count he's succeeded tremendously well. These are songs full of hope and love and wonder, a positive offering in uncertain times, a beam of righteous light to help us all in the dark.
We all know, of course, of how Paul Weller is caught up in the whirlwind of his ever-changing moods so there's also anger and melancholia on board too. But if the job of music is to lift the soul and swell the heart, then 'Illumination' fulfils this brief to a T.
“I think it's up there with the best of my stuff,” agrees Weller, “from whatever era you want to talk about. The quality of the songs speak for themselves.”