Paul Weller's ever-changing moods have led to one varied musical career. For starters, he's a paleo-punk rocker, having pogoed onto the scene in 1977 with British power trio the Jam.
In that incarnation, Weller's knack for mixing pop and politics -- not to mention the ensemble's fine, Mod-inspired fashion sense -- led to scads of chart hits in the United Kingdom and lots of music-press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic.
When, however, the Jam failed to become the maximum R&B band Mr. Mercurial decided he wanted to front, Weller disbanded the group and set up shop in the Style Council.
That outfit's airy soul-pop baffled lots of hard-bitten Jam fans, but, perhaps not coincidentally, the group notched a lightweight hit in the States with "My Ever Changing Moods," a buoyant Smokey Robinson knockoff that's probably playing in a nearby Old Navy right this very minute.
Post-Council, Weller has issued a clutch of gritty rock-and-soul albums that bear little resemblance to the music he made in either of his earlier bands. The singer-guitarist's voice has grown attractively huskier as he's gotten older, while his always philosophical songwriting muse has developed a spiritual streak.
And production-wise, Weller has totally abandoned the synth-pop atmospherics that made the Style Council's music seem more disposable than it was. Weller even dubbed his 1997 outing "Heavy Soul," a punning moniker for the sound and vision he's cultivated as a solo artist.
Coming on the heels of "Days of Speed," last fall's wheel-spinning live set, Weller's new "Illumination" is something of a revelation. It's easily the best album of his solo career, probably his best effort overall since 1980's "Sound Affects," the last of the great Jam albums. The new disc is lush but organic, an incisive collection of organ-splashed pop that sounds simultaneously classic and contemporary.
Class-conscious tracks such as "A Bullet for Everyone" and "Call Me No. 5" (written with the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones, who also sings on the cut) even reconnect Weller to his Jam band past, sounding so angry and British you half-expect them to offer you a spot of tea before gobbing on a picture of the queen.
Elsewhere, though, Weller pursues his crush on American soul with the casual confidence of a genuine luminary. Most songs come decked out with gorgeously strummed acoustic guitars and shuffling, gospel-inflected arrangements.
But despite his traditionalist tendencies, Weller still pushes things forward on "Illumination." The disc's strongest tune, "It's Written in the Stars," features a looped trumpet riff that coexists peacefully with the song's groovy-baby organ. And Oasis mastermind Noel Gallagher (a card-carrying Weller acolyte) guests on "One X One," a Bic-flicker of a rock anthem wherein Weller grafts his dirty blues guitar onto an ethereal string section.
There are a couple of missteps. Two slight ballads ("Who Brings Joy" and "Now the Night Is Here") feel like mere obligatory changes of pace. And the disc also suffers from the worst trend of the overstuffed-CD age: superfluous "bonus" tracks that should have been left on the studio floor.
Still, "Illumination" mainly finds Weller making vital music more than two decades into his ever-changing career. Old fans will be charmed by the man's sheer staying power, but the disc is a worthy introduction for neophytes, too.
Paul Weller is to appear Feb. 19 at the 9:30 club.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)