British songwriter Paul Weller's a lot like the Seeker, one of the song subjects of his musical role model, Pete Townshend. Although with the Jam, his first band, Weller sounded as if he had little time or patience to try "to find the key to fifty million fables," as Townshend once put it, he's spent the better part of his solo career looking inward in an effort to divine the answer.
Of course, one doesn't need to dissect Who lyrics to find a window into Weller's state of mind. His four solo albums are littered with references to personal quests of all kinds -- romantic, artistic, spiritual -- that point to the fact that while he may no longer be the angry young Mod lashing out at the status quo in a flurry of power chords and a hail of feedback, Weller remains a restless soul haunted by discontent, searching for truths both big and small.
A few of those truths -- fifteen of them (sixteen if you count the newly recorded track, "Brand New Start") to be exact -- can be found on Modern Classics, a new collection of the most vital work culled from the singer's under-appreciated six-year solo career. The disc, slated for release by Island Records on Dec. 8, serves as a wonderful introduction to, and overview of, Weller's post-Jam (as well as post-Style Council) period and includes a lorry-load of songs like "Sunflower" and "Changingman" that should have been huge hits in the U.S. -- but, predictably, weren't.
As ultimately impossible as it might be for Weller to ever top his tenure with the Jam in terms of watershed artistic achievement or cultish notoriety, you've got to hand it to the guy for trying -- or more accurately, for not trying. Weller's never attempted to replicate the sound and fury of that celebrated group who, along with the likes of the Clash and Elvis Costello, ignited a musical revolution in the U.K. that (for a while at least) swept the established dinosaurs of rock to the margins of relevance. Instead, after the Jam disbanded in 1982, Weller formed a new group, Style Council, and immersed himself more deeply in the musical passion that's always informed his material -- American soul music.
Modern Classics traces a neatly illuminating line through the singer's influences and obsessions, demonstrating how, contrary to some detractors' complaints of Weller's latent soul-man pretensions, his solo material has in fact brought Weller's longstanding musical loves sharply into focus. Just as the soundtrack of the original British Mods of the 1960s -- a movement characterized by flash, fashion, pills and all-night dance parties (similar to the U.K. rave scene that flourished some twenty-five years later) -- drew heavily from soul music, so too did the Mod revival almost single-handedly led by the Jam.
So it's not too much of a stretch that Weller, whose band once covered Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," should incorporate elements of Marvin Gaye (the melody to Gaye's "What's Going On?" can be heard on Weller's wistful "Above the Clouds") and Curtis Mayfield into his elegant amalgam of rock and soul. Of course, there are also loud echoes of the Who's focused dynamism in the defiant individualism of "Peacock Suit" and, elsewhere, the psychedelic excursiveness of Revolver-era Beatles and Traffic (whose singer, Stevie Winwood, was considered one of the premier blue-eyed soul singers of his era) laces the disc's fittingly titled closing track, "Into Tomorrow."
Weller can afford to wear his influences on his sleeve because, as this new collection attests, the man remains, ultimately, his own best and truest guide. Modern Classics showcases a songwriter whose singular voice endures; it's grown quieter perhaps, but no less vital or honest. On the new track, "Brand New Start," for example, Weller sings with touching, gritty resolve about creating a worthwhile life amid chaos and striving to build "a heaven on the ground." Some twenty years after the Jam boldly announced a new era of "the Modern World," an older, wiser, but seemingly no less satisfied Weller continues to take stock of it. He's still grappling and searching for ways to live in a world that perhaps hasn't turned out to be so terribly different from the old one. But he'll keep trying. After all this time, he's still the Seeker.