Paul Weller

Illumination (Yep Roc)

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Well, well, Weller -- another album hailed as a "comeback" in the UK, where it's been available in slightly altered form since September, and another album sure to be labeled "sell back" in the U.S., where a handful of remaining old fans will wonder why they ever bothered at all. You can't damn the man for growing up and out of his angry phase; that's what men do when they settle down, have a kid and start putting folded hankies in suit jackets pulled over ties that aren't as skinny as they used to be. You don't expect the snarl and don't long for the sneer, because, well, it'd be pathetic if the self-aware 44-year-old kept growling like the self-righteous 24-year-old who used to grouse about the modern world and tube stations and toss A-bombs down Wardour Street, blah-blah-blah. Besides, plenty of back catalog exists to satisfy the backward-glancer now that the awkward dancer has taken up permanent residence in the Café Bleu; there's always that live-at-the-Beeb threefer available on import or that double shot of performance DVDs out next week to Jam into your earholes to stop the bleeding whenever someone insists on playing this Traffic accident.

But maybe we don't want our old punk-rock heroes turning into Steve Winwood. (If Joe Strummer had too much heart and Johnny Rotten too many balls, what's Weller got? Too many acoustic guitars?) Yeah, yeah -- it was there all along, that winsome wannabe-folkie pining for his English rose, that Motown mod strutting through the town called Malice, all of it and then some. He was punk for an hour and dandy forever since, and the diehards followed him from the wasted city into the sterile disco without giving him much grief. So we were conned; happens every day. Rockers promise a revolution and settle for a house in the country, even better if we pay for the cushy sofa and teakettles. Twenty-five years on, and it's come to this: a record full of "special" guests (in England, where Oasis and Stereophonics and Stone Roses might still mean something) and spring-to-summer love songs, most strummed acoustic and hummed narcoleptic, save for the "rocker" about the betrayal of the Labour party, which may be a hit in England, but so are Jools Holland and Coupling.

Illumination isn't so rank as to warrant eternal damnation; sales will do that, when yet another P. Weller product moves over to the discount bins the week after its release. But when the pessimist becomes the eternal optimist and starts offering the answers instead of asking the questions, well, it's time to find a new hero. Should have started looking a long time ago.

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