When Paul McCartney releases a new album, you close your eyes and pray that he tried to do something worthy of his talent. In the last eight years he has released Chaos And Creation In The Backyard 2005, where he tried, Memory Almost Full 2007, where he didn’t and Electric Arguments 2008, under the name of The Fireman the third collaboration with ex Killing Joke bass player turned producer Youth where he really really tried . Kisses On The Bottom 2012 doesn’t really count as it is covers of traditional and old jazz tunes. (The title coming from the lyric of the standard, I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter – Kisses On The Bottom – (in case you were wondering).
Notwithstanding the covers album, McCartney is very aware of the contemporary music world, whereas a lot of newer bands these days seem be very aware of the seventies. McCartney’s Memory Almost Full is a case in point with its snappy modern title. But what is actually going on? Old guys trying to be new and snappy and young guys trying to be retro and organic! It’s a strange world of contradictions isn’t it? I swear I heard an unreleased Neil Young album from the seventies the other day, but no it was a new artist. I simply can’t imagine how the worship turned into such a copy of the hero because when Lennon And McCartney were copying their heroes they didn’t sound exactly the same as them – they injected their own personalities into the writing and made it their own. And now McCartney on his 27th studio album (including Wings and The Fireman) manages not to sound like anybody but himself even when he uses personality produces like Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse) and Paul Epworth (Adele) to work with. New (yes that’s the album title), is McCartney trying again and even the more ‘modern’ sounding tracks like Appreciate, sound very much like his ideas rather than anybody else’s. He is working with a total of four producers on the record, the other two are Ethan Johns, (Glynn’s son) who has a much more organic CV, (Ryan Adams, Crowded House) and Giles Martin, (Sir George’s son). This either shows that McCartney is looking for a balance of influences on his record or as with The Beatles is not afraid to be eclectic – and even when he is, he can’t get away from himself.
The album cover could be the latest electronic cool kids but knowing it’s McCartney doesn’t make you cringe, (Grandad in tight pants), because knowing his work with The Fireman albums, these kind of contemporary covers fit into his broad musical landscape – what you get on New is NOT the total McCartney musical experience like many other older artists. He still has the chops and his talents as a multi instrumentalist singer songwriter comes across on this record as an effortless pleasure. Old grumps may shake their heads in despair dreaming of another Paperback Writer, Penny Lane or some such pop gem that can compete with history. Well the edge isn’t there, that’s for certain and although he does play bass, piano, guitar, drums and sing, he doesn’t seem to feel the need to get a proper guitarist on the record. (He touches on this on the end of Appreciate) but like Ringo’s drums in The Beatles, the guitars are just a tool to back the songwriting. I wish for Henry McCulloch (who played the solo on My Love) or Jimmy McCulloch or Denny Laine who both played with Wings. I want him to hear Tom Petty and his secret weapon – Mike Campbell – great guitar parts and great sounds that enhance the songs of the older gentlemen of rock. I wish he would find some characterful new creative guitarists, players who were as characterful as he was as a bass player in The Beatles or as George Harrison was as a lead guitarist in that most characterful of bands. Closest to this for me is Alligator, Ronson produced and a guitar line that any of the Wings guitarists might have played. One wonder’s if Ronson longs for the smoothness to be interrupted with some edge.
Ultimately, the album is a melody fest and although some of that tracks seem trite, like the album opener Save Us and On My Way To Work despite its Ray Davies style normal bloke as poetry lyric – having said that even the less interesting songs have some interesting parts. Queenie Eye sounds like an early seventies song but suffers from an over cooked mix. Few chances are taken in mixing this record and if you could send it back to 1969 to be mixed in that era, then the album would be ten times better. The autobiographical Early Days, a simple nostalgia track (that takes a shot at the ‘historians’ who weren’t there), is warm and meaningful as McCartney miraculously continues his unbelievable down to earthiness, dealing with being the most famous musician, the most successful songwriter ever as if it was nothing. Noticeably on this track you can hear in his voice that this young man with the doleful eyes is actually a septuagenarian. It’s still him but something has started to crack. He has famously sung songs with many different voices over the years from the sweetness of I will to the aggression of Helter Skelter and as a harmony singer many Lennon lead vocals have been given that pure McCartney effortless harmony treatment to great success. Now with the years behind him you can here that rumble of age in his throat.
New, the title track inspired by the new relationship with his wife Nancy, is the kind of bouncy pop you might want to hear from him these days. The song is skilfully composed in its simplicity, equally jolly and reflective. Hosanna is another worthy track on the album with an interesting production although, not having the album credits I can’t recognise who is responsible for it. On Road he is back on track with the mood and melody working effortlessly together. Turning Out could actually be one of those Tom Petty songs that I mentioned earlier and I can imagine Jeff Lynne would have loved to get his hands on it. The album’s final track is a paean to the blues, oddly incongruous but on closer listening it seems more like he DOES actually want to be left alone, a complete contradiction to that image I have of him dealing with his fame so easily. A secret track piano love song, the kind of song that he writes for breakfast concludes.
All in all this is an album that shows McCartney has the potential to be interesting as an artist 50 years later, but he can’t get away from that lighter side that is both his greatest asset and his greatest weakness. But then really, is his surrendering to melody that much of crime? I don’t think so.
To hear an Interview about the new record on NPR Radio show All Things Considered, go here: