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Heavy Soul

Your leader and our lapdog" is how Paul Weller describes President George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. Blair is the youthful liberal who seems to be the only world leader dumb, or crazy, enough to back Bush unconditionally in his imminent war against Iraq. "It took eighteen years to get rid of Thatcher and get Blair's Labor government in, and now he just takes orders from Bush," says Weller. "It's sad that after all this time, nothing's really changed."

Maybe nothing's changed in the realm of bipartisan politics over the last couple of decades, but in Weller's life, just about everything has. The 44-year-old songwriter has gone from teen pinup to soul balladeer to pop elder statesman in the course of his quarter-century in the music business. Nowadays, though, he seems content doing what he does best: writing songs.

A native of Woking, England, Weller made his first mark in the world in 1977 at age eighteen as the singer/guitarist for the Jam. A contemporary of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Jam force-fed raw chunks of punk aggression into the classic British songwriting tradition of the Small Faces and the Kinks -- in the process becoming the most consistent English chart-placing group since the Beatles. Weller's revival of mid-'60s mod fashion and sound provided a sharp contrast to the glitzy futurism of new wave. As the band wound down in the early '80s, it began to experiment with funk, post-punk and psychedelia, but it never lost touch with its nose-to-the-grindstone punk essence.

After the Jam disbanded in 1982, Weller formed the Style Council, a much more polished outfit that swept through the synthesized '80s with a soft, pastel-soul sophistication. The band's 1983 near-hit in the United States, "My Ever Changing Moods," remains a staple of AOR-radio programming. The Council adjourned in 1989 after a deep drop in popularity, prompting Weller to go solo, a move that saw him adopt a more mature, organic style. Although it took a while for his soulful hybrid of Marvin Gaye, Nick Drake and Traffic-era Steve Winwood to catch on, he refused to include any of the Jam's songs in his solo live sets, regardless of how much it might have bolstered his in-concert appeal.

"On my rocky road climbing back up after the Style Council, I just wanted to try to make it on my own merits," he says, shrugging off the fact that the eighteen Top 40 hits he wrote for the Jam clearly fall into the domain of "his own merits." "I didn't want to trade in on nostalgia. I wanted it to be new stuff, a new direction. But now I kind of think I've proven my point."

Point taken. Weller occupies a perennial post atop the pop charts in the United Kingdom, and in 2000, he set up a sold-out tour performing acoustic versions of material from his first five solo albums. On a whim, he spiked the set list with Jam anthems like "That's Entertainment" and "A Town Called Malice."

"I just kind of sprang it on people. I remember playing "English Rose," which I think the Jam only played in the studio. No one had ever heard that song live, actually," he recalls. Some of these unplugged tracks, along with the audience's enraptured response, are captured on his Days of Speed live album. Weller says, chuckling in reminiscence: "I think that was quite a surprise to a lot of people."

Some may also find themselves quite surprised by Illumination, Weller's new album and his first to be released in the States since 1997's Heavy Soul. Gone are the slick varnishes and orchestral arrangements of 2000's Heliocentric; in their place are the rough-hewn textures of first-take demo recordings. The sound is raw, unfiltered Brit rock with a thorny edge of pop, blues, folk and soul.

"I was disappointed with Heliocentric. It took about three and a half weeks to record it and then seven or eight to mix it. It was fucking ridiculous," Weller admits. "There's a lot of good things about modern studio technology, but sometimes it gets really frustrating. The whole technological process of recording these days is sort of soul-sapping to me."

"With Illumination, I wanted to get back to making records quickly," he continues. "Just getting the performance down, and the spirit of the track too. If it's a good song and everyone who's playing is into it, who cares whether the high hat's perfect or not?"

Surely it doesn't hurt to have an illustrious backup band in the studio. Besides the usual assist from Style Council drummer Steve White and Ocean Colour Scene's Steve Craddock and Damon Minchella, Weller enlisted the guitar expertise of the Stone Roses' Aziz Ibrahim, as well as Oasis's Gem Archer and Noel Gallagher. Weller, of course, is merely returning the favor: His is the soaring solo on Oasis's 1995 smash "Champagne Supernova."