Polydor 0859857 (LP), 0880405 (CD), 0880406 (CD, Deluxe Edition)
Formats: LP and CD

Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½

Paul Weller doesn’t enjoy the level of stardom in the US that he does in his native UK, but his Stateside following is strong enough that his records have always been released here. Many of us in North America became fans when Weller fronted the Jam and, after that, the Style Council. We’ve stayed with him during his solo career of almost 30 years because his songwriting skills have never faded -- if anything, they’ve continued to grow -- and his records always surprise and challenge.

Weller has always embraced a wide variety of musical styles, from rock’n’roll to soul and beyond, and On Sunset, his 15th solo album, shows his versatility and far-ranging interests undiminished. “Mirror Ball,” the 7:37-long epic that begins the album, embraces lush 1960s pop and ’80s rock -- and that’s just in the first two minutes. A section of musique concrète gives way to hints of disco and electronica, all held together with heavy guitar. “Mirror Ball” is ambitious, enthralling, and sonically playful.

Mick Talbot, keyboardist for the Style Council, joins Weller on three tracks, including the soulful gospel song “Baptiste.” Talbot’s Hammond organ gives it a churchy feel, and Phil Veacock’s horn arrangement brings in a shot of Stax/Volt. Talbot’s Hammond is just one of many elements in the ’70s urban-soul stylings of “Village,” but he plays an important role in setting the jaunty tone for the upbeat “Walkin’.” Each song has something distinctive that grabs the ear, whether the guitar riff in “Baptiste” or Lee Thompson’s sax solo in “Walkin’.”

Paul Weller

French singer Julie Gros joins Weller in “More,” which recalls the Style Council’s sophisticated jazz pop. Strings and horns enrich this track, but drummer Ben Gordelier lays down the funk that keeps things focused and rhythmically fluid as the arrangement grows more complex. Young British R&B singer Col3trane helps out on “Earth Beat,” a slice of electronica and soul, Gordelier again ensuring that the music gets you out of your chair and out on the dance floor. Weller mixes in swirling effects and an electric sitar -- the result sounds up to the minute while acknowledging the past. “Equanimity” reaffirms Weller’s love for the Kinks, and “Walkin’” harks back to mid-period Beatles. With so many styles and influences, On Sunset could have been unfocused and scattered, but it hangs together beautifully.

On Sunset ends on a gentle note with “Rockets,” a beautiful and moving tribute to David Bowie. The lavish arrangement re-creates the sound of early Bowie, and Weller’s affection for the late singer is evident in the opening lines: “He went off / Like a rocket touched / Way up in the sky / Beyond the bars / In our minds.” The song’s final verses are a lament for the world Bowie left behind: “The system all decides / The institutions old / But still in control.”

But elsewhere on this album, and in general, Weller sounds contented -- On Sunset is shot through with the joy of making music. The title track contains hints of rock, jazz, and soul, with a sparkling Motown-influenced rhythm guitar, a phat bass line from Andy Crofts, and a wonderfully rich string arrangement played by Paraorchestra. Jan “Stan” Kybert has coproduced every Weller album since Sonik Kicks (2012), and this new one continues the experiments in sound that Weller began on that album. But even with its thickly layered arrangements, On Sunset never feels overstuffed or crowded.

Paul Weller

Weller plays a variety of instruments, and is aided by musicians who’ve played with him for years, including guitarist Steve Cradock (also of Ocean Colour Scene) and drummer Steve Pilgrim. Gordelier and Crofts, both of the Moons, are keys to keeping the music rhythmically focused.

Although I almost always prefer vinyl to CD, I enjoyed On Sunset on either format. The LP’s sound had a slightly more natural flow, and Weller’s voice was a hint more three-dimensional -- but the CD’s crisper top end let percussion and other elements come through in better resolution. In addition, the Deluxe Edition of the CD includes five worthwhile bonus tracks and is housed in a hardcover book case.

Paul Weller has made some of my favorite albums by anyone -- Wild Wood (1993), Heavy Soul (1997), and 22 Dreams (2008). On Sunset isn’t merely the most recent member of that illustrious company. The work of a confident musician who’s still pushing himself to try new things, it might well be Weller’s best work yet.

. . . Joseph Taylor