Album: Setting Sons
Artist: The Jam
Released: November 16th, 1979
Highlights: Thick as Thieves, Wasteland, Burning Sky, The Eton Riffles
Like many other great bands, The Jam nailed the process of making a record right out of the gate, as their debut, “In the City”, is deservingly held in very high regard. However, it can be argued that the trio’s work in that first effort falls onto a bit of an odd middle-ground: it is by all means a fantastic and classic start, but one would not be criticized for saying the group had yet to find a voice at that point. The reason for that, of course, has to do with the timing of its release and the nature of its content: coming out in 1977, at the height of the punk fever and one month following The Clash’s debut, the album’s focus on punchy power-chord riffs and its touches of political thought meant that Paul Weller’s gang was too close to their peers for comfort. And because of that, although “In the City” certainly speaks volumes about the singer and guitarist’s knack for songwriting through its hooks, the record still runs the risk of being seen as a product that emulated the music of its time to a larger-than-desirable degree.
By the release of “Setting Sons”, however, the notion that The Jam could not break away from the crowd had been blown to pieces: not thanks their second album, “This Is the Modern World”, which had actually worked towards giving even more voice to their critics; but due to their third effort, “All Mod Cons”. In it, Weller emerged like a punk version of The Kinks’ Ray Davies; that is, someone who is able to make resounding points – in his case, political – via a nigh literary look at British characters and situations. To boot, he and his band had risen to the occasion and delivered a more nuanced musical package, because, sure, there was still plenty of punk rock in there: a better term does not exist to describe the iconic riff of “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. But, at the end of the day, the album opened itself to the influence of new wave and power pop, hinting at the future adventurous spirit that The Jam would display.
As the follow-up to that album, “Setting Sons” expands on that growth: if “All Mod Cons” was flexible, this forth chapter threatens to be eclectic. It is not a radical departure from the past: it does not flirt with post-punk and experimentation in the same way that its successor, “Sound Affects”, would do; and it certainly does not jump into funk and soul like The Jam’s farewell, “The Gift”. As such, when it is all said and done, punk prevails, guitars get the spotlight, and Weller is still rather angry at a number of different targets. But “Setting Sons” showcases a firmer grasp on the ideas that began being explored in “All Mod Cons”, to the point it is possible to say that if the band did indeed find their voice in their third record, in this one they polished it into its finest version.
Simply put, everything in “Setting Sons” shows a greater degree of maturity and inspiration. Paul Weller comes off as a man on a major songwriting streak: there is not a tune in the bunch that goes by without a hook that emits an iconic vibe; therefore, to unaware listeners, this is one of those albums where it is hard to tell what was a hit and what was not. Moreover, in lyrical matters, new topics have emerged while old ones have been enhanced. In the group of fresh subjects, “Thick as Thieves” and “Burning Sky” are tales about lost childhood friendships, but where the former paints the situation in a sad romantic light, the latter goes for a colder approach. Meanwhile, in the set of recurring ideas, there is “Smithers-Jones”, penned by bassist Bruce Foxton, which is an achievement in recreating the dullness of corporate life with beautiful music; and “The Eton Riffles”, which is likely The Jam’s most famous political statement: a brutal criticism of the British class system that looks at the privilege and nasty behavior of those who can afford to go to the country’s best schools.
That is not all, though, because the musical aspect of “Setting Sons” is also incredibly noteworthy. The instrumentation, arrangements, and production are much richer than before, and it is precisely through them that the album manages to surpass “All Mod Cons” in sheer flexibility. At times, the lushness is so considerable that listeners would be excused for thinking they are going through a British guitar pop album from the 1960s, written by forgotten contemporaries of The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles. This is the type of sound The Jam was aiming for here, and although trying to stand beside those giants is no easy task, the band pulls it off – after all, they were in the process of becoming legends themselves. And the benefit of that strategy is astounding because no other punk band was going down that particular road, as those dinosaurs of the past were usually seen by the movement – at least publically – as figures to be avoided. As such, what The Jam cooks here is mostly original.
Yes, there are songs in “Setting Sons” that could have been present in “All Mod Cons” or even “In the City” without feeling like abrupt deviations: opener “Girl on the Phone” is an incredibly catchy slice of punk that flirts with light romantic pop; and “Saturday’s Kids” has pounding riffs, dirty guitars, and an ironic sing-along chorus. But everywhere else, the music is more dynamic. “Thick as Thieves” and “Wasteland” are the definition of anthemic: songs without choruses that keep building in sadness and melodic beauty to a cathartic release. “Private Hell” may concern personal matters, but it sounds like punk apocalypse. “Little Boy Soldiers” manages to be operatic in how it packs different movements in a little more than three minutes. “Burning Sky” is more straightforward, but it uses the looseness of the letter format of its lyrics to equally include numerous melodic shifts that form a punk epic. “Smithers-Jones” is an orchestrated piece of baroque pop that inevitably recalls “Eleanor Rigby”. And “The Eton Riffles” has The Jam employing the album’s instrumental fullness to assemble their heaviest song ever: an angry all-out guitar assault that also happens to be incredibly catchy.
“Setting Sons” is not perfect. Originally conceived as a concept album about a group of three friends who meet again as adults after a non-specified war, the record was not able to deliver on that promise due to a rushed recording schedule. As a consequence, only fragments of that idea survive, in tunes like “Thick as Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, and “Little Boy Soldiers”. But truth be told, that problem does not actually hurt the album, as it will go by unnoticed to those who are not aware of that background. What harms it are little irregularities that, in some cases, are a result of how it had to be put together more quickly than anticipated: “Girl on the Phone” is fantastic and “Saturday’s Kids” is decent, but they do not gel well with the other tracks; “Little Boy Soldiers” is a clever idea that does not quite stick the landing; and the inclusion of the fun cover of the soul classic “Heatwave” to close the record is, like the appearance of “Girl on the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids”, a clear attempt to fill up space.
Yet, “Setting Sons” remains a wonderful achievement that marks a unique encounter between punk rock, new wave, and British guitar pop. And although the race for the title of The Jam’s best album is a hard one due to the consistency of the band’s short discography, their fourth release emerges as a worthy candidate: Paul Weller never wrote such an incredible batch of songs and the group never sounded as sure of their voice as they did here, especially because the trio would go on to disband without having enough time to fully polish the musical direction in which they would go after this album. Because of those qualities, “Setting Sons” should be an essential part of any punk rock, new wave, and guitar pop discography: it exists at the edge of those three sub-genres, and it masters them with class. There are not many other records that can make that claim.