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It's the great irony of rock and roll: No matter how old the audience becomes, the artist is expected to remain forever young. We go gray, soft, tired; we accrue mortgages, children, wrinkles, tombstones. But the artist must have none of these things. He or she must stay frozen in time, trapped in vinyl grooves behind Plexiglas. Once a rocker, always a rocker, no matter how strong the desire to move to the country and hire a string section. Perhaps no one knows this paradox better than Paul Weller, who emerged in the 1970s as a sneering teenager only to grow, comfortably, into his role as a middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter who now prefers to pen love songs to his daughter. Long gone is the snarl of youth; it has been replaced by the cigarette-bitten croon of the troubadour who hires Nick Drake's arranger and admits, "I've got a need to be loved."
Those among us who lament the death of The Jam, who broke up in another lifetime, bemoan Weller's soft-underbelly pop songs. We can't understand how the guy who wrote and barked "In the City" and "Billy Hunt" could turn into Steve Winwood. Worse, we wish only that Weller would return to his old stomping grounds: Where are the electric guitars? (Perhaps he's the subject of this disc's "A Whale's Tale," when he sings, "You don't even know me, but you hunt me the same.") Weller went soft long before he kicked out the Jam and dolled up as the Style Council; something about swallowing a bitter pill and all that. His solo career has been nothing but the inevitable evolution of the prematurely wrung-out, the icon who rolled over and found Noel Gallagher curled up beside him. Years after pretending to be Happy Jack, turns out Weller wants only to be Sgt. Pepper.
Heliocentric, available only on import, might well be the best of Weller's solo offering -- a distillation of Wild Wood's psychedelic melodrama and Heavy Soul's smell-the-funk. It opens with a song for Small Face Ronnie Lane that blurs the line between homage and royalty check; two songs later comes the song for his daughter, his "Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea," that jingles when it's not jangling. Blessedly, there's nothing here as turgid as "Brand New Day" off 1998's (ironically titled?) Modern Classics best-of -- though "Back in the Fire" does get run over in the middle of the road a couple of times, and "Love-less" is a song in search of a soundtrack. But, alas, yes, there is something here to remind you how what was became what is: "There's No Drinking, After You're Dead" has edge enough to recall days gone by, but it never panders or pretends it's yesterday. Especially when the string section kicks in.