Review: Paul Weller’s 22 Dreams

August 23, 2008

Dear Paul Weller,

I was going to do a straightforward review of your album, 22 Dreams, but I just can’t.  On the one hand, I feel like my issues with the album boil down to the same problem throughout, and, on the other, the damned thing contains 22 songs.  And, while that’s a lot of songs for your buck, it doesn’t lend itself to a thorough review.  Many of them are tasty, polished, finely crafted pop songs, perhaps the best you’ve done since Stanley Road.  And for that, good on you!

So, what makes me so reluctant to write a real review?  Well, it’s your voice, sir.  No, it hasn’t gone to the dogs.  If anything, it’s better sounding than ever—in the abstract, at least.  You’ve always had one of those voices that contains a little bit of grit, a timbral interest and depth rare in pop music, and nearly completely absent from punk music (especially the nasal pop-punk which descends, ironically, from your first two albums with The Jam).  Your expression with the Jam was spot on, even as the band moved from punk to pop and even injected a little ‘60s Motown influence: I think of “Going Underground,” one of your songs that is distinctly English in flavor, but I can still hear the soul music you love creep in as you belt out the chorus, and then return at a hushed whisper.

And, now that I think about it, it’s not actually your voice these days that bothers me, but how you use it on 22 Dreams.  On the songs that reflect your rock & roll side, like “22 Dreams,” you sound great.  But on “All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You)”—which sounds a bit like “Bitterest Pill to me, sir, but the mining of your past work is another issue for another day—you have an artificial, overly heavy vibrato.   On “Have You Made Up Your Mind,” you sound like a control-freak soul singer: at once overly enunciated, vibrato heavy, and strangely clipped, but also dripping with emotive phrasings.  The incongruity of your voice pops out in contrast to the casual, almost perfect Uptown soul backing vocals.

Look, I know you’ve wanted to be a soul singer since you told that Swedish lady on TV that your influences were the Sex Pistols and Tamla-Motown.  But if you want to be a soul singer, you can’t be clipped or artificial in your performance, or else you will end up sounding like an R&B version of Rod Stewart’s American songbook.  Let go, or you’ll sound like a reserved Englishman wanting to be a Motown singer.  And though you are English, and want to be a Motown singer, you used to have a lot less reservation.

At times, this strange vocal inflection infects other styles you embrace.  “Invisible,” another song with the vocal problem, is similar to your earlier “You Do Something To Me,” crossed with Randy Newman.  I know you’d disagree with that, but, really, that’s who you sound like.  So, Rod Stewart and Randy Newman: both guys I can’t stand, and regret hearing you sound like.  The worst example of this stunted phrasing and goat-y vibrato is on the folk-inspired “Why Walk When You Can Run,” which, I’m sorry, I will not be adding to my iPod.  Oh wait: I forgot about “Where’er Ye Go,” another piano-oriented tearjerker about setting some love free and it coming back to you, or something like that.  On that one, you sound like an old man, a Polonius of pop, emoting with a bloated cliché.

This sounds very much like I hate 22 Dreams in its entirety.  Musically, however, it has some of the best songs you’ve written in years.  Even though I can hear the very clear influences of the music you love—English folk, 1960s rock, jazz, you name it—dominating song by song, it’s a pretty cohesive grouping of songs.  The instrumental “Song for Alice,” which, with its backwards-tape-sounding trumpets, brings to the table both Beatles-esque recording techniques and fine jazz touches in the drumming.  And the tiny snippet of a song, “The Dark Pages of September Lead to the New Leaves of Spring,” sounds like the outro of an excellent psychedelic folk song.

“Push It Along,” though a little silly and repetitive, is one damned catchy tune, as is “A Dream Reprise,” another horn-tastic burst with (again) ye olde backwards guitar recording.  Man, you have an affinity for that, but it’s fun—like “Music for the Last Couple,” only cuter now that you’re old.  “Night Lights,” at over six minutes, effectively layers texture upon texture in a reprisal of the vaguely Eastern-inspired sounds as “Light Nights,” the album opener.

So, here’s my suggestion for your next album: record the vocals live, in one take.  I know you’re fond of the noodly recording bits, but you’ve isolated them on 22 Dreams into parts of the song that don’t feature vocals, anyway.   If you limit the amount of vocal takes, you’ll never get them to that “just right” stage, which, in the kind of music you’ve always made, is just wrong.  (Including the Style Council, which, aside from “Shout to the Top,” consistently suffered from this problem.)

I do want to thank you for one final thing, though.  Thank you, sir, for not singing about your loins—or anyone else’s—on this album.  I’m still embarrassed for you for that misstep.

Yours,
Elizabeth

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