Sonik Kicks is something altogether different. Released on Monday, March 19, 2012 on Island Records, Weller’s eleventh solo endeavor contains some familiar elements but on the whole is far more electronically oriented than the Weller we’ve grown accustomed to. There’s far less of the soulful croon we’re used to and far more quirky electronic effects thrown in the mix. To be sure, this isn’t the first time he has played with an effects machine. He’s dabbled in electronics on previous solo work (notably, his reasonably well-acclaimed 2010 release, Wake Up the Nation), but never to this ear-boggling extent. And while the “adult easy listening” quotient has been plenty high on many of his previous albums, the emotional old codger in him really shines through in some of the introspective lyrics that strip him a little too bare for my taste. I’m a little embarrassed for him just listening to it. One thing’s for sure, though: An album of foot-stomping, fist-pumping anthems this is not.
The album borrows elements from psychedelia and Krautrock (Tangerine Dream and Can fans will likely dig) but manages to create something truly original and Wellerian in the final analysis. Fans who expect Weller to follow his usual hip, guitar-driven formula will be either baffled or sorely disappointed. The guitar makes some cameos, but it’s overshadowed by all of the glossy excitement of Mr. Weller’s new toys. The soulful vocals are still solid, but sometimes they’re brutally violated and abused by way of loops and filters, or else absent altogether. There are some cool production gimmicks and effects, but the production comes off as a little sloppy in places, although I’m not sure if it’s unintentional or just part of the whole “experimental” vibe of the album. A handful of standout tracks anchor an album that’s by and large a motley collection of bizarre effects explosions and flights of fancy. Here’s my track-by-track take:
- Green – A song that kicks ass and takes names. Lots of experimental squawking and burbling, with twangy guitar and a driving beat to keep it grounded. Cool effects that sometimes verge into what sounds like sloppy production.
- The Attic – Sounds a little more like what you’d expect from Paul Weller, but still tinnier and shinier than I’m accustomed to. Has this weird feelgood undercurrent. I imagine oldster-mods playing this at a casual barbecue in the perfectly manicured backyard of their immaculate suburban home.
- Kling I Klang – From the title, I expected some kind of unabashed homage to Krautrock. But this is more like a fanciful Scott Walker-esque Euro-romp with jerky guitars and maracas. Like if Scott Walker joined a wandering band of gypsy rockers who play German weddings for extra cash. Entertaining, if nothing else.
- Sleep of the Serene – Sobering, noble-sounding strings occasionally cut up and remixed onto each other, or at other times run backwards. A few effects thrown in for good measure. This instrumental track flirts with psychedelia and fleetingly references Krautrock in the vein of Neu! and Tangerine Dream.
- By the Waters – Starts out with some reassuring acoustic strumming punctuated by intense, jabbing strings. The strings wait patiently in the background, peeking out to the forefront from time to time, and occasionally swelling to epic proportions. Some earnest crooning from Weller makes this track….not bad, but sort of odd. I wouldn’t have expected this from him.
- That Dangerous Age – Zippery fizzing opens into a more conventional-sounding Weller tune that borders on cheesy at times. The chorus sounds like something Sugar Ray would release. Retro-psych fuzz guitar barely holds everything together like duct tape that’s losing its stickiness, and my heart goes out to that poor Hammond organ struggling to be heard above the gloopy ruckus. Echoey handclaps and unconventional percussion are this track’s only saving grace. (Horrifyingly, it’s the album’s first single!)
- Study in Blue – Acoustic plucking, a discreetly funky bassline, rippling organ riffs, and sauntering rhythm create a dubby vibe, but one that has been sanitized or dumbed-down for play in a cocktail lounge or shopping mall. Sounds like something I might enjoy listening to while trying on clothes I can’t afford in a posh dressing room somewhere. Grand, punchy chorus and frilly female vocals strike me as incongruous and off-putting, a distraction from the overwhelming chillout vibe. Otherwise, this is more along the lines of what I might expect Style Council-era Weller to turn out.
- Dragonfly – There’s a lot going on in this song (perhaps too much). Weller’s uninspired vocals aren’t mixed in loud enough, and with so many special effects tangents spiraling off in every direction, it gets hard to follow. Would someone please take the effects machine away from this man?! It almost sounds like a misguided mashup of an acoustic melody with a different song with a faster tempo laid atop it. Forgettable.
- When Your Garden’s Overgrown – Conventional Weller vocals and mortifyingly self-referential lyrics normalize an otherwise odd midtempo mishmash of rhythmic jangly strumming, nagging synthesizers, and squirty effects. Not bad, but sort of exhausting.
- Around the Lake – This throbbing rocker with creepy vocals and brooding synth underlay is reminiscent of a radio-friendly gothy dance track, like the Sisters of Mercy gone frighteningly mainstream. A bit of reverb and echo on the vocals sounds distinctly un-Wellerian. Weird noises intrude at intervals, sometimes overwhelmingly, once again detracting from the overall feel of the song. Like several other tracks on the album, this song cuts off abruptly at the end, leaving me feeling like I’ve just been doused with a bucket of icewater. WTF, dude?
- Twilight – Less than 20 seconds of farty electronic noodling and pot-banging. Come on.
- Drifters – Lilting, loping, vaguely psychedelic jam with hard twangy strumming and oodles of effects. A high-hat-heavy flamenco rhythm drags behind it Weller’s droopy pleading vocals, which echo and loop back on themselves endlessly, at points cutting off abruptly. (Sloppy production, or artistic statement? You be the judge.) The song crescendos into a paranoid, manic hallucination of sounds and layered vocal loops that quickly goes silent and then ends with a haunting strings outro, leaving you a bit frustrated and unfulfilled. I wanted this song to go on way longer than it did. This is definitely one of the album’s high notes.
- Paper Chase – Nice downtempo jam with measured acoustic strumming, mellow vocals from Weller, and gnawing effects. Middle Eastern phrasings throughout and evocative psychedelic strings towards the end. Sounds more typically Weller, probably the most so out of anything on the album. A no-brainer for consideration as a remixed single.
- Be Happy Children – Paul at his most earnest and again verging on cheesy. This tune is fit for a wedding singer who can pull off its unabashedly cloying tone without a hint of irony. Female vocals make a cameo and sound more at home in this song, but the fact that they’re mixed too loud kinda ruins it. To be fair, this song is dedicated to Weller’s children, but don’t you think it’s a tad self-indulgent to close out with your kids’ vocals, mane? Oh, and the song title needs a comma.
The single takeaway that really sticks out about this album is its lack of cohesion. It sounds like Weller got hold of an effects machine, got really really high, and then made a bunch of random experimental tracks, after which he simply shrugged and said, “Uhhh…here’s my new album?” Still, it remains a brave undertaking that’s worth a listen. Krautrock aficionados may scowl at this album’s influences being cited as such, but casual Kraut-fans will surely find something to like about these tracks. Followers of Weller who appreciate his willingness to experiment will likely enjoy his efforts here. And if you’re simply someone who revels in the comical notion of Weller playing with an effects machine while singing goofy lyrics over spacey bleeps and bloops, then this might be for you.