PAUL WELLER has been a star for 25 years in Britain, where his first band, the Jam, was the most commercially successful of 1977's punk upstarts. In recent years, some British rock writers have dismissed the musician's '60s-rooted music as "Dad rock" or -- because of Weller's friendship with Oasis's Noel Gallagher -- "Noel rock." But Weller's latest album, "Illumination," is not only a U.K. hit; it's also been getting excellent reviews on the other side of the Atlantic.
"Every time you make a record, obviously you hope that people are going to like it," says Weller by phone from London, where he's preparing for the tour that will bring him to the 9:30 club Wednesday. "But you never know how people are going to react."
Still, after finishing this album, "I felt really good about it. That's not an indication of what the reaction will be. But I think it stands up as a good if not great record, if I'm allowed to say that meself."
"Illumination" is not a change of direction for Weller, who has long combined Who-ish pop-rock and acoustic guitar ballads with the '60s soul influences that emerged in the Jam's later days and were fully indulged by Weller's second band, the Style Council. But Weller thinks the album has "a really positive feel about it, kind of up feel about it."
Fundamentally, Weller says, "Illumination" was made the same way as its predecessors. "We always record live in the studio. It's always a live vocal and guitar and drums, and maybe bass sometimes. But I think it was very focused. I knew what I was after, what sort of sounds I wanted to have, or what sort of feeling it would give people."
One shift from previous albums, he reports, is that "I did a lot of it meself," overdubbing everything but the drums on some songs. In addition to guitar, bass and keyboards, Weller plays tin whistle and "a little bit of cello" on the wordless "Spring (at Last)," whose sound he calls "sort of Ganges via Dublin."
"I was nearly going to say that I can get a tune out of anything," he admits. "Guitar and piano are my main instruments. I'll sort of attempt anything, though. If something's lying around, I'll just try it out."
The recording proceeded "in short little bursts, because the year I was making it, I was on the road an awful lot. I would only have a week or so every now and again in the studio. So we were going for maybe two or three days at a time, and just worked really intensely. And then I would be off again on tour or take a break or whatever."
Recording during the gaps between concerts made the music more relaxed, Weller believes. "When you're playing night after night on tour, you become less self-conscious about doing it. I think you just take that feeling into the studio. A lot of the tracks on the album are first or second takes. Probably about half the songs started as demos, which we just kept and improved on a little bit. We felt they had a certain spark about them."
Among the guests on the album are Gallagher and Stereophonics front man Kelly Jones, representatives of bands that, like the Jam, have been more popular in Britain than in the United States. "I suppose there's a sort of common ground for all of us," Weller says. "Noel and Kelly would probably say that the Jam were a big influence on them when they were kids. We kind of meet at that point. But we've all become friends as well; that's the other side of it."
The album's style shifts on the two songs that feature the electronics of Simon Dine, who records as Noonday Underground. "I really liked the sound of his first record," Weller explains. "I just felt we could work together. I don't think it's necessarily transported to what I've done with my record, but on his records the music has a sort of filmic quality about it."
If much of the album is pastoral and parental -- "Who Brings Joy" is about Weller's youngest child -- the mood turns bristling on "A Bullet for Everyone," a soul stomper that protests, "There's a bomb for every city / Now they don't know where to stop."
"The frustrating thing," Weller says, "is that people wrote about the same subject 30 years ago. It's depressing that nothing seems to progress at all."
Briefly identified as a Tory in the Jam's early days, Weller joined the likes of Billy Bragg in the '80s as a member of Red Wedge, an alliance of pop stars who campaigned for the Labor Party. "Like a lot of people in this country, I'm kind of disillusioned with all of them," he says. "In England, we waited 18 years for a Labor government to get in, endured 18 years of Thatcherism, only to find out that nothing really changes. It's just someone else with a different smile but the same set of politics."
Weller asks about the antiwar movement in the United States, confessing that "I don't know much about American politics." In fact, the country has long been a mystery to him, dating back to the days when the Jam failed to crack the market. "It was obviously not meant to be," he says now. "We used to say about the Jam that it was 'too English,' but I don't know if that's true or not. I think music normally translates to any country."
"Illumination" wasn't even picked up for American distribution by Sony, the company that handles Weller's British label, Independiente, in this country. Instead it's on Yep Roc, a North Carolina indie. Despite his limited success over here, Weller has no complaints about American audiences. "Live, it has always been good," he says. "I'm happy with that experience. As long as there's enough people there to make it worthwhile to come, then so be it. I'm just a working musician. It's not like I've come out to rule the world or something."
PAUL WELLER -- Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Paul Weller, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)