Paul Weller has had a productive lockdown. Two albums – ‘On Sunset’ and ‘Fat Pop (Volume One)’ – have kept his creative fires burning, with the English maverick continuing to push ahead. Indeed, it’s simply been a continuation of the pattern that has dominated his work for the past 15 years – nail down an idea, then move on, time after time after time.
‘An Orchestrated Songbook’ found the songwriter escaping the studio, playing a very special one off show at London’s Barbican venue. Together with arranger Jules Buckley, Paul Weller peered back through his catalogue, matching established greats against new cuts in an orchestral context.
On record, it’s a brave endeavour that offers new light on elements of his storied discography. A lush ‘Andromeda’ gives way to a completely re-worked ‘English Rose’, a song that presents the Weller-Buckley creative axis as mirroring Nick Drake’s work alongside Robert Kirby on those seminal records. Jam-era favourite ‘Carnation’ is also given a luxurious workout, but it’s far from a nostalgia trip – recent tracks such as ‘Bowie’ emerge strong and emboldened.
A largely solo affair, ‘An Orchestrated Songbook’ does feature a small smattering of guest spots. The wonderful Celeste returns for ‘Wild Wood’, and their easy-going chemistry – they recorded early in her career – pushes the 90s favourite into a different realm. Boy George appears on ‘You’re The Best Thing’, while an unexpected turn from James Morrison doesn’t quite click into place on ‘Broken Stones’.
A record to soak up at your own pace, ‘An Orchestrated Songbook’ is often at its most effective when the material takes a turn for the unexpected. ‘Still Glides The Stream’ has an appropriately liquid-like quality, while ‘You Do Something For Me’ – arguably the apex of Weller’s 90s run – is twisted inside out. A joyous, zesty ‘My Ever Changing Moods’ is also a real highlight – part of the recent reappraisal of his work with the Style Council, it leaps and writhes with a soulful defiance, creating a pattern for others to follow.
While it’s not an unqualified success, ‘An Orchestrated Songbook’ is still an intriguing, at times fascinating exercise. Often drawn towards neglected elements of his own catalogue, Paul Weller seems to conjure a shadow portrait, one that finds him kicking against expectations in the beginning of a new decade.
Words: Robin Murray
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