Throughout his 35-year career—one that includes The Jam, The Style Council, and his ongoing solo output—Paul Weller has gone back and forth between two basic types of albums: sweeping conceptual grab-bags and sharp, solid snapshots. 2010’s Wake Up The Nation served up an excellent mix of both approaches. But the balance between eclecticism and focus isn’t as graceful on the new Sonik Kicks, despite the fact that Weller is still riding his current wave of inspiration and adrenaline.
His 11th solo album, Sonik Kicks caps a trio of restless discs (starting with 2008’s 22 Dreams) on which the British traditionalist has pushed himself into exhilarating new territory. From the first notes of propulsive opener “Green,” though, Weller’s footing isn’t as sure. Interpreting the “sonic” part of the album’s title a bit too literally, he heaps on the swirly, spacey, brain-piercing synths—a fly-in-the-ear annoyance that he relies on far too often as the album progresses.
Thankfully, Weller the traditionalist wins out. “By The Waters” is an acoustic-plus-strings ballad that seeks out one of his sweet spots—a contemplative nook between Nick Drake and John Lennon. “Dragonfly” revisits a dark, churning, post-punk vibe he hasn’t dabbled in since The Jam’s 1980 album Sound Affects. And “Study In Blue” is a drifting, gossamer-draped love song full of dubby echoes, ghostly melodica, and a honey-sweet duet from Weller’s wife Hannah Andrews.
Some of Weller’s sonic tinkering works well—for instance, the trippy effects of the shambolic “When Your Garden’s Overgrown” and the burbling keyboards that flavor the upbeat garage-soul of “That Dangerous Age.” But the album ends with its worst employment of electronics, a hovering, distracting digital smear that mars the gorgeously lilting closer “Be Happy Children,” another conjugal duet. With Sonik Kicks, Weller’s silk-and-smoke voice sounds as good as ever, and his status as a soulful, folky, yet forceful songsmith remains ironclad. Next time around, though, an extra round of editing might not hurt.