Over the course of his nearly fifty-year career, Paul Weller has proven himself to be as fearless as he is prolific. Premature as it first seemed to dissolve The Jam and form The Style Council back in 1982-3, the move proved to be both wise and fruitful. And in his subsequent work as a solo artist, Weller has been willing to stretch the boundaries of style with material old and new. Fat Pop (Volume 1), coming out less than a year from his previous album, On Sunset, reaffirms the continuity of his approach.
In “Cosmic Fringes,” a disembodied voice over mechanical rhythms introduce the album’s recurring characters, here in the form of a vaguely disenfranchised wanderer lost in his own self-victimization. The portrait is as clear as the audio that makes full use of the stereo spectrum, as does the more conventional r&b that evolves from loud staccato guitars echoed by a robust horn section. Residing in a sharply-defined middle ground between funk and electronica, the title tune certainly deserves its description; always a man of few words, Paul’s pithy as can be there, but nonetheless alludes to the bonds of a music community built on mutual appreciation between its artists and its audience.
It is appropriate, then, that the very next cut, “Shades of Blue,” introduces the melodic sweetener of vocal harmonies courtesy of Weller’s daughter Leah (who also co-wrote the tune). With the man’s own voice as stoic as he usually appears in photos, “Glad Times” may be ironically titled even as it marks the first occurrence of orchestration that eventually swirls around colorful keyboards. There nevertheless remains plenty of space for the lush textures to sink in and allow for the dramatic entrance of piano and electric guitar that supply finishing touches to yet another track as economical as it is dense.
Accordingly, it should come as no surprise acoustic guitar forms the foundation of “Cobweb Connections:” it’s one instrument that hasn’t appeared in any arrangement to this point. Flute is likewise prominent on “Testify,” as is the saxophone and electric guitar, trade-offs that are, each in their own way, as effective as the transition from Hannah Peel’s string score in reaffirming the first impression of Fat Pop (Volume 1): the work of a creative spirit as imaginative as it is restless.
Nevertheless, blemishes do taint what is largely a pristine execution of Paul’s multiple production concepts. “The Pleasure” trades in a thinly disguised topical jargon, seemingly aimed as societal inequities, that only sounds glib. The steady gallop of the band on “Failed” does generate a palpable momentum, but it might better have been sequenced earlier in these dozen tracks to better pace the album; in doing so, Weller could’ve simultaneously maintained its juxtaposition with “Moving Canvas.”
Thus imbuing the LP with a more discernible circular logic. the romanticism suffusing “In Better Time” would befit the self-renewing nature of this artist’s agile and affectionate relationship with pop music. In so doing too, Weller would be furthering the drama of “Still Glides The Stream” as the final track: after ushering the listener through a guided tour of his well-tilled stylistic landscape, Weller takes a moment for introspection, his implicit vulnerability rendering him a more sympathetic figure than his occasionally impersonal craftsmanship allows on Fat Pop (Volume 1).