Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
And now for something completely different.

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks
"By the Waters"

Even I am surprised by this choice. I'm not a die-hard Paul Weller fan; I feel no close personal connection to him. Twice now I've bought tickets to see him in concert and ended up not going. And yet, curiously enough, I find I own most of his albums, from The Jam through Style Council and on into his often-baffling solo work. Sometimes they disappoint me (last year's Wake Up the Nation left me cold). But when I see there's a new one, I'm always tempted.

I sampled Sonik Kicks before buying it. My finger hovered over the Buy Now key for a minute or so. Did I really want an entire album of electronic experiments?  That title, with its cheesy misspelling of "sonic" and the freighted word "kicks," kept blinking at me like a red warning light.

But I clicked on Buy, and I'm glad I did.

It's clear that Weller's dabbling with a lot of studio tools, layering the music with weird effects, building a wall of sound that's not always pretty. He's fallen under the spell of some DJ named Simon Dine, and he's apparently been listening to loads of buzzy Krautrock. This is the sort of stuff that's usually anathema to me. Yet beneath it all, Weller's insane commitment to melody and to syncopation shines gloriously through.  I actually find myself humming these tunes in the shower; when they're playing, I feel compelled to get up and dance. It's an astonishing feat indeed.

And that's why I remain loyal to Paul Weller. He's one of the biggest risk-takers out there, restless for new musical ideas, completely bored by the idea of replicating his previous sound. There are of course fans who still feel betrayed that he left the Jam to form Style Council (personally I prefer Style Council) and who believe that his new stuff is self-indulgent crap. Yes, it is self-indulgent, but that's just another way of saying that he marches to his own drummer. When you're this innately talented, indulging yourself can be a good thing.

As strange as the sound may be to some ears, Weller actually finds a lot of range within it. I suggest you listen to more than one track: the aggressive punch of "Kling I Klang," the snappy hipster satire of "When Your Garden's Overgrown," the soulful pop sweetness of "Study in Blue."

But given the sorrow in my heart over the tragic news of yesterday's school shooting, I'm taking solace in this tender track:

The moral is simple -- we're all going at such a speed, working, racing around, hyped up with information, we need to grant ourselves the right to take a breather. Nothing more than that, nothing less. He offers nature as the source of renewal, water and sky and stars and sun -- an unexpected message on an album so full of speed, noise, and cryptic social commentary. (None of the lyrics on this album tell a conventional story.)

By the time this track drops -- it's #5 on the album -- it provides exactly what the lyrics promote: a place of refuge, healing, and rest.  I could feel my muscles relax, my pores open, my heartbeat slow back down. It was a totally unexpected experience from an album called Sonik Kicks.

That's when I knew this album was a keeper.

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