A songwriter moving gracefully into his autumnal years.
Is it any surprise that Paul Weller’s later solo career would more mirror similar efforts by classic rock titans than it would Weller’s fellow punk/New Wave insurgents? Even in his youth, Weller was far more studied in the history of pop music – especially British pop music – than many of his contemporaries. If his work with the Jam and Style Council was a modern twist on the music of years past, his solo work finds him entrenched in that past, happy to keep doing what he does while only occasionally peeking at what’s going on in the wider world. This is to say that True Meanings, Weller’s latest offering, doesn’t push any musical boundaries, nor does it really attempt to. Instead, it offers Weller an opportunity to look back and ruminate in a way that feels more inward-gazing than anything else in his career.
True Meanings represents a drastic shift in Weller’s work by virtue of how quiet it is. In comparison to the blues and soul rave-ups that have largely characterized his later solo career, True Meanings is a whisper of an album. The production is pristine and delicate, yet Weller and his team of producers have gone to great lengths to create a feeling of isolation on the record. At times, the album is literally Weller alone in a room with a guitar, and even the songs that aren’t that are very much designed to feel like that. While Weller largely succeeds in creating that insular atmosphere, it too often feels somewhat sucked of life, even on some of Weller’s livelier tunes, like the jazz-inflected “The Soul Searchers.” Even when creating something ostensibly personal, Weller keeps the listener at arm’s length on True Meanings.
Even so, it’s impossible not to respect the craft on display on True Meanings. Weller may be pulling his punches a bit, but he also deploys them with extreme precision, relying on thoughtful expression more than mere sentimentality. His tribute “Bowie” is a prime example of this: rather than a treacly ode to the titular rock star, Weller is instead contemplative of this figure in British rock, remarking on the fact that he was, after all, a man who dealt with the same struggles as everyone else, even as he strove to be seen as anything but normal. Elsewhere, he retreats to the third person, as on “Old Castles” and its tale of an uncaring king who sits idly as his castle and kingdom crumble around him. It’s among the most ambitious lyrical work of Weller’s long career, and these lyrics go far towards giving True Meanings something resembling a lasting impact.
It’s likely that Paul Weller the genre-hopping polymath might be slowing down in his old age, which is a shame given that that willingness to dive headfirst into all of pop’s traditional forms is what drew people to his music in the first place. Still, True Meanings shows a songwriter moving gracefully into his autumnal years. Even if it’s disappointing in spurts, True Meanings still shows Weller to be the sharp, intellectual songwriter he always was; all that’s changed is the presentation of things.