Thursday, June 16, 2022

It's in the tune in your head

Paul Weller's "Brushed" is a groove: uncomfortable, lived-in, anxious and grateful
To say that I'm on a Paul Weller kick isn't terribly accurate; I've been on a Paul Weller kick since I was sixteen-years old. But lately I have been paying more attention to his songs that I've known and liked for years but have been hearing in new ways.

Like much of Weller's solo material, "Brushed" (from 1997's Heavy Soul) is as much a groove as it is a song, yet this particular groove is galvanizing, intuitive, and purposeful. It's also wholly original. Shuffling three chords, Weller and his band—bassist Mark Nelson and longtime drummer Steve White—are forced to muscle their way through their own arrangement and mix, which churns and startles, layered with screeching, riffing guitars, backward tapes, stereo panning, and restless, excitable percussion. Heavy Soul's producer Brendan Lynch and producer/engineer/mixer Max Hayes are credited with providing "additional sounds"—an apt credit for a soundscape that's hard to pin down, as a vivid nightmare is upon waking. I hear a scream in the mix at one point.

A strangely angry-sounding song song, "Brushed" is remarkable: at once uncomfortable and lived-in, both anxious and grateful. Weller's words aim to reproduce, or anyway to try and make sense of, what seems to have been an epiphany that the singer's experienced, the title word evoking a blink-and-it's-gone moment when the universe wobbles a bit, and something bright and penetrating shines through for a moment before it's gone. (The Japanese have a great word for this, satori, a sudden kick between the eyes.) The first verse lays out the flicker of insight:
It's in a stroke of a brush
It's in the wave of a hand
And a view so bright
It turns the world
And makes all right
Yet seems to say
Come what may
You will be what you will
The second verse alters the terms slightly:
With a brush stroke of fate
You will have to think again
If you touch by it all
Lucky to be brushed at all—
Weller sings that he must now "walk a crooked mile / In a worn out smile" that's been "found on the ground." At the word found there's a sinister and alarming chord change. "Somebody else threw" that smile "down," and it's up to the listener to pick it up. "Looks like that you're the next blessed in town," Weller growls, the irony thick. Given the roiling arrangement, where parts of the song quarrel with each other to find resolve, that blessing feels pretty damn mixed. (You'd be forgiven for thinking that the eternally-stylish Weller sings "best dressed in town," as "Brushed" sits near the great "Peacock Suit," a riff-of-a-song essentially defending Weller's wardrobe.)
In the third verse, Weller locates the inspiration in "a verse" and in "the tune in your head": a revelation that revolves the world, illuminates life, and "makes you see / All the love within / Is still yet to come out." Weller's singing about the gift of art, I think, but he could as well be singing about mind-bending psychedelics; either way, the brief experience that he's trying to wrestle into form and expression ("Like the word—as a bang!") has demanded that he think again, see fresh again, and, blown away, he's grateful for this gift.

Then why the turbulent mix that sounds like nothing less than the soundscape of a bewildered brain? This is what I've been obsessing over since sometime last week, when—I don't know why or, really, how—I heard the song as if for the first time. It might've because I was listening to the 45 I'd recently scored, and the vinyl, unsurprisingly, led me to deeper and warmer places than the 1's and 0's had allowed me for the last couple of decades I'd spent with the song. Whatever the reason, I was particularly struck by the groove and music and the "rough seas" mix this time around, how unruly their vibe is while scoring a song ostensibly about the welcome, unbidden gift of a vision, however vague and fleeting. I think it's because the song matches, or translates, Weller's frustrations in describing what he experienced; if the perception had come unto him peacefully, in tranquility, then he might've reached for his acoustic, but because its presence shook him up and astounded him, he turned to his band, cranked up the amps, and tried to blast his way toward clarity. Weller often second-guesses his lyrics: in a video promoting Heavy Soul, he said about "Brushed": "Don't know what to say about that, because I really like the actual sound of it, sonically it sounds brilliant, I think. But...lyrically, I don't know. I'm not so sure." Yet the arrangement insists on the truth: you may be the next blessed in town, but the grace will forever slip beyond full understanding. Enjoy the ride and its surprising turns.

"[Heavy Soul] feels like quite an angry album," Weller remarked to Paul Lester in Uncut a year after the album was released. "Quite bare and exposed. The idea was to try and do something even more removed from [Stanley Road], more rough and spontaneous." He added,
There was criticism that some of the songs were undeveloped. That was true. I wanted to write them as quickly as possible. I wouldn't say I could listen to it every day. It's a bit heavy going. It's quite uncompromising.
On "Brushed," Weller sings in a way that sounds as if he's indebted and at the same time resentful for his tongue-tied fate. Heavy on the soul, indeed.

"Brushed" is one of Weller's great songs, yet it's the full-band performance that brings it to life. Here's the group grooving it in1997.


Dennis said...

One of my favorite Weller songs. I've been on quite a solo Weller kick lately as well. Fat Pop and Illumination both received spins recently.

Joe Bonomo said...

Yep. And I think that "Mirror Ball" on On Sunset's one of the best things he's done in years.

Dennis said...

Agreed! The Jam were/are one of my favorite bands of all time (was fortunate to have seen them during their tour for The Gift album). I've always loved solo Weller and its amazing that he's been as good and creative for such a long time.