35 years to the day after The Jam's fourth studio album was released, Universal is re-issuing 'Setting Sons' with a host of extras. Despite its commercial success, it's never been The Jam album I've gravitated towards, 'All Mod Cons' or 'Sound Affects' seemed far more appealing. Perhaps that's because 'Setting Sons' is somewhat frustrating; it's an incomplete and abandoned concept album of two young friends being sent into an unnamed war, as evidenced by the album cover photo of the bronze statue of St John's Ambulance Bearers. So the question is; does this super deluxe version restore Paul Weller's vision of a cohesive narrative?
The simple answer is no. However, the second disc does group the song cycle that begins with 'Thick As Thieves' together for the first time in demo form, and then presents unreleased demos such as 'Simon' and 'Along The Grove' (featuring Weller almost symbolically abandoning the idea for a song midway through). The opportunity to shed new light on Weller's incomplete vision of a Jam concept album does seem to have been missed here, but really that's my only complaint about this re-issue.
On the other hand, this 60-track set is surprisingly successful in providing context to The Jam circa 1979. It's also made me re-appreciate and re-evaluate the core album itself. The first seconds of 'Setting Sons' feature the ring of a rotary desk phone, like a sound from a time capsule, but in truth the album hasn't really dated. The social commentary of class division ('Saturday's Kids' and 'The Eton Rifles') and even data protection and privacy ('Girl On The Phone') feel just as relevant today as they did during the last throes of the Punk revolution. Even the more adventurous musical choices such as a recorder being used during 'Wasteland' or the woodwind driven 'Smithers-Jones' sound far less problematic than I remembered.
By the time you add in non-album singles, B-sides, a plethora of demos and Peel sessions, 'Setting Sons' really does maintain the spiky urgency of The Jam's earlier records. The remastering, even on the rough material, is a credit to these re-issues, and again is well handled here. The crown jewel of the set is the previously unreleased full December 1979 gig from the Brighton Centre. Putting the 'Setting Sons' tracks into context alongside highlights from The Jam back-catalogue, you suddenly realise what a key record album number four was for Weller. This was the moment he tried to move beyond Punk and create a new sound for the band, without jettisoning what had come before. Take, for example, the live outing for 'Smithers-Jones'; full of urgent guitars and vocal vitriol. 'Setting Sons' really does deserve the deluxe treatment as it benefits greatly from it.
In retrospect, 'Setting Sons' falls in the middle of the Jam's 6 year run, and by this point, Paul Weller really had hit his stride as a frontman and songwriter. Despite the record's troubled history, this newly polished version is well worth re-visiting. Although the aborted attempt at a concept album isn't restored here, 'Setting Sons' place in moving past Punk is underlined, and perhaps that's the album's real legacy, which should be celebrated.
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