Paul Weller; Universal/Island Record
When rock stars of a certain age work hard to maintain the physical image they enjoyed at 25 - Iggy Pop or Alice Cooper spring to mind - they're in danger of becoming rock cartoons. There's nothing wrong with that - it's all a bit of fun - but more often than not, when the look remains stubbornly "1975", so does the music.
Which makes Paul Weller unusual. Because while there is no bigger rock caricature in the UK, from his impossible washboard stomach to the feathered barnet and après-ski tan, Weller appears to have evolved musically in the past five years through a series of ruminative, experimental solo projects - in a manner more in keeping with those "ex" rock stars such as Peter Gabriel or Elvis Costello, who stopped being cool years ago. The Jam formed in 1972. Weller has a fierce army of followers from those days who are more in love with the look and idea of him - the Modfather, Noel Gallagher's long-lost dad - than they ever were with the soundtrack. He doesn't need to make any new music. So why is he doing it? And just how new is it?
In 2008, 22 Dreams caused a ripple of surprise among fans and critics, a double album of modern folk songs, strange instrumentals, clattery pub piano and spoken word. Its follow up, Wake Up The Nation - harder, jazzier, more exhilarating - was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Weller is well placed to dabble in different styles. He made a lot of money in the 1980s, owned his own studio (Solid Bond) and record label; he also has a powerful trump card - he could reform the Jam at any point and they'd be ten times bigger than they were when they split. Like Sting, Morrissey and, until recently, Ian Brown, the potential cash cow of the band gives him the confidence to experiment. There is no such thing as a musician like this "taking a risk".
The new record, Sonik Kicks, is in his words "groundbreaking, maybe . . . Very electronic, quite experimental." It was recorded in his Surrey studio, he plays most of the instruments himself and, yes, it is rather odd. The opening track is a buzzing pop-art oration on various uses for the word "green". "Kling I Klang" is Krautrock transplanted to the music hall, a thrashing, thumbs-in-braces oompah rant about the Iraq war. The 14 songs are spliced together by small string interludes and electronic interference that sounds like snatches of Morse code, or a radio tuning through many different stations. "When Your Garden's Overgrown" is a song about Syd Barrett; "Drifters" has a bit of flamenco buried in it somewhere. Each vignette represents a different shade of a diverse musical knowledge, but when it comes to actual innovation we're in danger of confusing new sounds with something that just sounds new coming out of Paul Weller.
All too often, a clubby bass-line and a few electronic samples feel tight around the collar of the older rock musician. On Paul Simon's 2006 album, Surprise, an urgent, rather clunky backdrop of processed beats underlined lyrics about a mid-life crisis ("I'm painting my hair the colour of mud!") perhaps more sharply than he intended. There's a bit of that tension here, in "That Dangerous Age", which was inspired by comments Weller attracted when he married Hannah Andrews, 27 years younger than him, in 2010. It's a plucky little protest song but he wears it far less comfortably than "Study In Blue", a six-minute soul-reggae "love odyssey" on which she duets, featuring a great whiny melodica refrain. The song is laid-back and unconcerned, bringing to mind a long, stolen weekday afternoon that Weller might have enjoyed knocking around the house, wearing his slippers. At its best, this whole album has the feel of the garden shed about it - someone who loves music, tinkering away. The closing ballad, "Be Happy Children", is by far the best showcase for his soulful voice, yet it's also the song on which he most sounds his age.
Weller is not Peter Gabriel or Elvis Costello or Robert Plant. He's not playing with the Brodsky Quartet, or adapting his hits for an orchestra, or recording a rock-bluegrass hybrid. Instead he's working with his adoring acolytes (Noel Gallagher and Blur's Graham Coxon guest here) and well within his comfort zone. At the end of the day, all the buzz surrounding this album - "groundbreaking!" - is just another part of that brilliant, finely crafted image: Weller the "Changing Man", who's actually firmly rooted but sharp enough to give the impression that he is always on the move. He put it well recently, with an unintentional paradox: "I've only ever been about what's next, really, and I'll be that way until I keel over . . ."