In contrast to its pop-oriented predecessor, Setting Sons features a much harder, tougher production, albeit with the overarching melodicism common throughout The Jam’s discography. Arguably, this is the Jam’s most thematically ambitious LP. Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Paul Weller originally conceived Setting Sons as a concept album detailing the lives of three boyhood friends who later reunite as adults after an unspecified war only to discover they have grown up and apart. This concept was never fully developed, and it remains unclear which tracks were originally intended as part of the story, though it is commonly agreed that “Thick As Thieves”, “Little Boy Soldiers”, “Wasteland”, and “Burning Sky” are likely constituents; extant Jam bootlegs feature a version of “Little Boy Soldiers” split into three separate recordings, possible evidence that the song was intended to serve as a recurring motif, with separate sections appearing between other songs on the album.
The album was musically ambitious as well. “Little Boy Soldiers” consists of several movements, reminiscent of compositions by The Kinks. “Wasteland” features the unconventional instrument of the recorder. Even more striking is Bruce Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones”. The song was originally released as the B-side to the non-LP single “When You’re Young” three months before the album’s release.