By 1982, Paul Weller’s sheened but bristling craftsmanship had turned The Jam into a hitherto unknown phenomenon: a band that topped the charts with songs of uncompromising social commentary sung in Estuary English.
Yet Weller wasn’t satisfied, and in retrospect The Gift was the first major manifestation of his chafing at the Jam’s supposed restrictions, something that would culminate in the group’s dissolution at year’s end.
The album’s lead-off double-A-sided single augured well. Town Called Malice co-opted Motown grooves for the mission of documenting the aching dreariness of poverty, though impressively wasn’t without humour. Precious was a lashing love-struck funk workout.
However, they transpired to be the only great tracks on The Gift.
Though the more soul-inflected material was supposed to be an advance, the album seemed a regression. John Harris’ liner notes for this deluxe two-CD edition politely suggest the blame lies with drummer Rick Buckler and bassist Bruce Foxton not being sufficiently adept to tackle anything but their usual punk and pop-rock.
In fact, that superb rhythm section is less culpable than Weller’s sub-standard songs. The wispy Ghosts shows Weller has become self-conscious about his conferred role of Voice of a Generation. The staccato Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero is an ersatz Town Called Malice.
The jolly calypso backing of The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong doesn’t work in conjunction with its denunciation of tower blocks. The title track is a life-affirming anthem so forced that it has overdubbed whistles. Tellingly, Circus – a fine pulsating Foxton instrumental – seems to say more than Weller’s grand statements.
Also wanting is the production. Pete Wilson, for whom The Jam had dispensed with the iridescent hand of Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, double-tracks Weller’s voice to suffocating effect, while on “Trans-Global Express” he simply buries it.
The Deluxe Edition usefully rounds up non-album tracks of the period, including the 12-inch version of Precious and the excellent swansong Beat Surrender EP. The demo versions of the album’s songs are interesting (and revealingly less stultifying than the finished masters).
Neither, though, can disguise the fact that this was a sad album finale for a remarkable band.