The Jam - Setting Sons (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Jam

Setting Sons (1979)

Polydor Records

I bought this for cheap on vinyl about six months ago and have been listening to it pretty consistently since, being that The Jam is fantastic — Paul Weller is one of the great British pop songwriters, rivalling Townsend and Davies in pop savvy and ambition. Like them, Weller has a knack for storytelling and detail that separated him from much of the punk rock pack. And Setting Sons, an album previously meant to be a concept album and consisting of spare songs and connected pieces previously meant to be a concept album, is the Jam's Who's Next, a LP of scrapped mod punk and muscular rock that still sounds audacious and impressive. Most of the leftover British punk bands from '77 and post—punk bands weren't thinking in terms of concept albums (probably dismissing the idea as too proggy), though a lot of the music had incredible sonic reach. Certainly, if Setting Sons had worked out as Weller had envisioned and not been rushed out, it would have been the first punk rock opera (beaten by the classic Husker Du album Zen Arcade instead).

The finished product is flawed but still a classic '70s album, with some surprising moments showing the band really trying new stuff. Much of it is savage, angry working class and anti—war satire, as the characters of the connected songs grow up together then are separated and torn apart by war. "Little Boy Soldiers" is the best and most daring song on the album, incorporating fast military drumbeats, piano, explosion effects, and Weller's venomous, enormously despairing lyrics: "Better to take your shots and drop down dead/Then they send you home in a pine overcoat/With a letter to your mum." There have been tons of anti—war songs in punk rock, but few this effective in their specificity and power. "Girl On the Phone" is a nod to the Nerves and the Kinks in sound and humor, and "Smithers and Jones", backed by syrupy, insistent strings, follows a bougie twit looking forward to an expected promotion. All of the songs are catchy as hell, using the classic Beatles/Clash trick of using backing vocals on every other lyric, driving the choruses and verses straight into your head (though not in an annoying as hell Andrew Lloyd Webber way where you wish to drive the pencil nearest you into your skull). And the band sounds great, Bruce Foxton's bass and Rick Buckler's drums perfectly serving Weller's propulsive guitar.

Their best album is probably All Mod Cons, but Setting Sons is still a classic Jam album; the only issue with it if there is one is the haphazardly put together nature of it. The last two songs are the previously released single "The Eton Rifles", a fiery, frustrated indictment of rich little shits and their privilege, and then..."Heat Wave", a cover of the 60s classic by Martha and the Vandella's. I've got no beef with Motown, but the Who had already covered it themselves, so the Jam version just feels like a redundant cover of a cover. It's perfectly well played and all, it's just not needed, and it feels like a closing song thrust in because they ran out of anything else. Still, Setting Sons is a classic, often brilliant power pop and punk album, and a must have if you (like me) geek out over any band that sounds even vaguely like the Who and the Kinks. And "Wasteland" surfaced pangs of nostalgia for me, as maybe it will for anyone who felt like they grew up in one themselves.