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"The first song we did for the album was 'One X One.' It was just me and Gem playing some acoustic guitars and Noel playing some percussion behind us, then Noel put the bass on," Weller says. "It's just the demo, really, so there are bits that are out of tune and little fuckups, but I don't think the recording would have been improved by changing them."

Another fruitful collaboration is "Call Me No. 5," a bluesy duet between Weller and the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones. "Going Places" is a lush ode to love and devotion suffused with creaky vintage organ and Weller's mirage-like vocals, while "Standing Out in the Universe" is a smoldering soul epic. The obvious hit of Illumination, though, is the effusive "It's Written in the Stars." The track opens with a brassy trumpet loop before burying itself in layers of shuffling drums, ticklish bass and funky keys. Between tracks like "Leafy Mysteries," "Who Brings Joy," and "Spring (At Last)," the album sounds downright optimistic.

"I get pegged as a miserable old sod, and I have my moments, but I think I'm quite a positive person," says Weller, whose angst and outspokenness are as legendary in England as his songs. "With this album, I just wanted something that would give people a positive feeling, an inspirational feeling." More than simply "positive," Illumination's lyrics, full of pastoral imagery and childlike wonder, all show an affinity for good old-fashioned English Romanticism.

"Romantics? Let me think. You don't mean like Boy George, do you?" replies Weller when quizzed on the pre-Victorian literary movement.

No, not the New Romantics...

"Oh, you mean like Shelley and all that. There's that one album where we used some of the stuff from Shelley's Mask of Anarchy on the back cover," says Weller, referring to the Jam's 1980 masterpiece Sound Affects -- an album he once admitted was equally influenced by Joy Division, George Harrison and Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. "I don't want to come on like I'm some big literary kind of person, because I'm not that educated, but I think stuff like Shelley and Blake is just so stirring, so brilliant. It's the same thing with a lot of biblical imagery: Regardless of the pros and cons of religion or Christianity, there's a lot of stuff from the Bible that has that kind of quality."

Though wishing to make it clear that he hasn't been "converted," Weller shows a newfound tolerance for religion -- at least the non-organized kind -- in the song "All Good Books": "If Jesus could hear us now/Bending all his words/Of which he's proud/If Mohammed could see us now/Shaking down the walls/But not as prayer."

"I wrote 'All Good Books' months before September 11," Weller says, "though it definitely came much more into focus and relevance afterward. It's about people using the Bible or the Koran for their own ends. It's all been corrupted." Though outraged and impassioned, the song's icing-smooth sound is rooted more in mid-'70s Curtis Mayfield than late-'70s punk. Weller was the first songwriter of the original punk generation to fully embrace soul music; the Jam recorded raw yet faithful covers of everything from Martha Reeves's "Heat Wave" to Mayfield's own "Move On Up."

"Curtis was the master of that, wasn't he? Being gentle and serious at the same time," Weller observes of the late soul legend. "He was unique in that sense. When I think about Curtis, I can't help but think about how cruelly he was cut down." Mayfield died in 1999 after struggling through ten years of quadriplegia, the result of a freak on-stage accident. "For all the positivity and love he ever sent out to the world through his music, the way it was all stripped away from him was fucking awful. It does make you stop and think about how the universe can be so arbitrary."

Brightly though it may shine, Illumination still has shadows of Weller's bitter, pensive cynicism. "A Bullet for Everyone" is a well-aimed indictment of defense spending over domestic programs, a dark, harp-scorched blues that proclaims, "They say there's no provisions/Not enough to go around/But when it comes to the gun/There's a bullet for everyone." On the album's spectral, folk-tinged title track, Weller intones like a wayward ghost, "Where am I going to/Without your undying love/I'm as worthless as a cold, cold sun/That shines for no one."

Weller, though, now seems content to keep his more morose tendencies understated. Throughout all the stages of his career, his music has struck a balance between the tough and the tender, the political and the romantic, the uplifting and the pissed off. "I'm kind of old- fashioned that way," he says. "Even though I love a lot of contemporary R&B like D'Angelo and Angie Stone, the one thing that really bugs me about it is that you can't tell where one track stops and the other starts. It's all the same sort of beat, the same tempo. What's the matter with a slow song and then a fast song, a sad song and then a happy song? It could just be a bit more dynamic, a bit more varied."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller