Paul Weller: An Orchestrated Songbook – Splendidly coherent work

Fri, Dec 3, 2021, 00:00


An Orchestrated Songbook

Paul Weller



Credible heritage artists are in a quandary. What on earth can they do to not only make sense of their sizeable back catalogues but to repackage them, creatively speaking, in a way that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator? 

The mega-names often get it dreadfully, embarrassingly wrong: they shoot for the stars by duetting with equally famous singers and delivering overproduced versions of their best- known songs. The question remains, however: how does an artist do justice to selections from their back catalogue without the exercise turning into the proverbial dog’s dinner? 

One answer is to do it the way Paul Weller has here. More than six months ago, Weller, long-term mucker Steve Cradock and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Jules Buckley) gathered in London’s Barbican centre. Due to Covid-19 restrictions it was, of course, a sparsely attended, socially distanced show, filmed/recorded for online and television broadcast (both of which took place in June). 

The key here isn’t necessarily the lack of interaction in the room – excitable or not – but the focus and execution of the works in hand. Such a collaboration could work only with a particular “type” of song. A full orchestra with the likes of In the City, Going Underground, Start, Eton Rifles and/or a few other Jam/Style Council/solo stompers would surely have been a mismatch made in some kind of experimental, avant garde hell. It’s ballads all the way, then. But wait – come back!

It might be well to remember that even as far back as The Jam’s third album, All Mod Cons (1978), Weller very deliberately laid out his cards on the table. Yes, there were little punk/pop firecrackers that suitably tallied with the moods of the time. But that album’s ballad, English Rose, perplexed as much as soothed. That song is here, needless to say, enfolded in a sweeping array of strings and elusive brass that brings out even more of its emotional simplicity.

 The same can be said for others such as Andromeda, My Ever Changing Moods, On Sunset, Bowie and Still Glides the Stream. Suitable to such a considered approach, special guests are wisely (as in, this is Weller’s gig, mate, so do your work and exit stage left pronto) kept to a minimum: James Morrison on Broken Stones, Boy George on You’re the Best Thing, and Celeste on Wild Wood. 

The outcome, as if you haven’t already guessed, is a fully realised, splendidly coherent piece of work from a legacy act that still wants to matter. Fair enough.