Thursday, April 20, 2023

From the floor to the mirror ball

Two songs by Paul Weller wonder on the majesty of sound and where it goes

Reading Paul Weller's new book Magic: A Journal of Song has sent me back to the man's deep catalogue. In conversation with U.K. journalist Dylan Jones, Weller recounts the origins and personal histories of dozens of his songs, from his earliest in the mid-1970s to a few from 2021's Fat Pop (Volume 1). Never overly chatty, Weller's true to form in Magic, though he is quite forthcoming in many places, as when he considers his myriad influences, acknowledges the emotional difficulties in breaking up the Jam in 1982, and talks about his decision to quit drinking in 2010, candid about the dire places his alcoholism had brought him and quietly grateful for the renewed energy and focus he's been gifted. 

I love hearing Weller talk about music and his long career as a songwriter and performer, especially when those conversations reveal unexpected links among his songs. In 2005 Weller released As Is Now, his eighth solo album, the lead single from which was "From The Floorboards Up," a rocking, grooving celebration of live music, a kind of New Century update of the Jam's "Start" in which Weller's knocked out by the pulsations onstage and writes an answer to that very noise. In the liner notes to his 2014 best-of compilation More Modern Classics, he discussed the song's origins: it's about "playing live to an audience where, on a good night, the power seems to come up from the ground through the stage, through the band and out into the audience where the energy hangs in the air. You can't see it but boy can you feel it." 

The song came quickly: "Whilst on tour in Glasgow, after a (brilliant) gig there I went back to the hotel and wrote 'Floorboards' in my room."
The next day me, [drummer] Steve White, [bass player] Damon [Minchella] and the great [guitarist] Steve Cradock rehearsed and demo'd it in a dressing room and then played it live a few nights later. That doesn't happen that often!"
"Once you have experienced that feeling," he added, "you have to go looking for it again the next night, and the next after that and so on. It becomes the benchmark you're always trying to reach or re-gain. But it's an elusive one and not one you can plan for. You can only hope you will find it again."
So powerful a drug it is but it's a purity of feeling unmatched and important in our lives. I'm hooked that's for sure but I never wish to explain any better than that. It’s a magical feeling of spontaneity and communion amongst people who would only be strangers in any other circumstance. I'm privileged to have known and felt that in my time.
Born out of amped up bliss and adrenaline, composed swiftly, "From The Floorboards Up" speaks for itself in its driving urgency—Weller's riffing guitar churning atop Michella and White's rhythm as Cradock's solo sends splintery sparks toward the ceiling—and a chorus that sings the story more powerfully than Weller can in his description ("When we sway, we sway as one")The song is all about sweat and movement, but it's in touch with something ephemeral, as well. "I've got a feeling and I know it's right," Weller insists in the song, before admitting that it "sings in the air and dances like candle light," is there and then gone, issuing as much "from the walls and chairs" as from the guitars and amplifiers: "They tell me of the things that have always been there / And all that is not will have to go back to dust."

"Where does [the music] go once we have finished? Weller asks in the liner notes. "Maybe it just stays there in the hall or club or theatre, soaking into the walls or seats like a spirit. I mean it has to go somewhere right."
Crowd at Paul Weller's 2018 gig at Brighton Centre, Brighton, England [filtered]

Fifteen years later, he found where that somewhere is.

In July of 2020, Weller released his fifteenth album On Sunset as the world was in lockdown. The first line of the remarkable opening track asks, "Mirror ball, when will you spin?" It was a question I and millions of other live music fans were asking.

"Mirror Ball" is an accidental answer song to "From The Floorboards Up." At seven-plus minutes, it's the musical antithesis of "Floorboard"'s Mod urgency, where everything's over in a couple of minutes, yet in its dreamy conjuring of atmospheric states and unseen currents it's in touch with the same sonic sensibilities. The titular ball's a literal thing, rotating and bestowing star light upon concertgoers' heads, yet it's also an image of the spiritual state that music, especially live music, can produce: "Light up the room and our lives begin / Till we no longer feel the cold / We're now embraced by the mirror ball." Electronic psychedelic-folk-soul, "Mirror Ball" was written, and performed, in praise of the ways we're "empowered in [the] wake" of the ball's rotation, in the radiance rained down on a blissed-out crowd, of the music that sets it all into motion. "The moon's a balloon," Weller croons, "and we'll go far." "Music is the most natural thing in the world," he remarked once. "When we go to a gig and we all like it and we share that experience, it's the same sense of communion as a sacred rite in Borneo or wherever it may be; it just gets dressed up different. Its good for the soul." 'Till everyone's a shining star.

Here, Weller's on acoustic and electric guitars, longtime pal Cradock's again on board (abetted by guitarist Steve Pilgrim), and bassist Andy Crofts and drummer Ben Gordelier supply the rhythm section—but the gentle "Mirror Ball" is really a keyboard-driven track. Weller layers a Rhodes electric piano, mellotron, Hammond organ, piano, and synths, aided by Charles Rees on another organ, Tom Vam Hell on another piano, and Crofts and Cradock on Moog synths. That's a pretty crowded room creating music that might've ending up sounding fussy, or cluttered, but Weller and co-producer Jan Stan Kybert (he manned the boards for "From The Floorboards Up," as well) keep the arrangement airy and spacious, the serene programmed drums, glockenspiel, and massed backing vocals adding layers of gossamer roominess. The song's ceiling feels limitless, and that's the point. 

At the two and-a-half minute mark, something remarkable occurs. After Weller sings, via a pretty melody, the lines "And in every brick I pass I see you / In every blade of grass I feel you / In everything," the song somehow disengages from itself, and begins to ascend toward that infinite ceiling where the mirror ball spins placidly. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes this moment as the song "fracturing into space.") We've entered a wholly new song at this point, or, rather, we're inside of the song as it moves upward and outward in widening sound waves, scoring the evening for everyone who's there in myriad ways.

When Weller was a teenager in the mid-1970s he'd board the train to London with a tape recorder under his arm. Alighting from the tube in the capital, he'd press record and aim the microphone at everything around him, taping the sounds of the streets and the people of his beloved city. Back home in his Woking bedroom, he'd listen lovingly, obsessively, to the tape of traffic noise, street chatter, all of the colorful sonic bustle, and revel in the essence of the city life that the sounds evoked. He seems to have attained something similar with this trippy, otherworldly middle section in "Mirror Ball," where what we're hearing seems to be nothing less than the impossible perspective of a music venue's floors, walls, and ceilings, what they hear and have heard—the interior life of a rock club, if you will. Only the sound of a muffled crowd cheering brings the song out of the spell that it's cast. To my ears it's among the most remarkable passages in Weller's cannon, and the move back into the proper song's warm, stately melody and restrained yet pulsing playing is really moving. Weller, his band, and his producer have somehow tuned in to other frequencies in "Mirror Ball," those pitched just beyond our ability to hear them, the ones left over after the songs finish, the band leaves the stage, the crowd departs, and the venue goes dark. I mean it has to go somewhere right?

"When the heart grieves over what it has lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left," goes the old Sufi proverb. In these twinned songs Paul Weller possesses and than loses—that ancient story—but what's left behind is as magic, and as urgent and confounding, as what was once there. Plugged in, ears ringing, we'll chase it all again tomorrow night.

Top photo of Weller at The Vic in Chicago, Illinois, 2015 (by author); second photo via Brighton & Hove News

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