Paul McCartney's got a new album coming out -- and here's a word to those of you who just yawned: It's f**king great. Fact is, it's his best work since the days of that "beat combo" from Liverpool, the one that used to be so popular with the youngsters. And guess who isn't involved in this new release? A record company. Instead, it's being distributed via iTunes -- and at Starbucks. More about that later.
The album's a stunner, and it's a new career milestone for Macca. Flowers in the Dirt drew some vibrant Beatlesque energy from the McCartney/Elvis Costello partnership, but that was twenty years ago, wasn't it? And this album's even stronger. In fact, people "of a certain age" may find that it speaks to their emotions as effectively as any record since those put out by McCartney's first band.
McCartney's songwriting and playing are as sharp as they've been in any of his finest moments - and he plays everything but strings on the album. (Not so - see UPDATE, below.) His voice now seems as strong as it ever was (and it was always one of the best voices in pop music). And, on tunes like "You Tell Me" -- an elegiac and poignant portrait of lost days with Linda -- he's showing a vulnerability and heartrending soulfulness I can't recall hearing from him before.
He's found the right partner in producer David Kahne. Kahne has a jeweler's delicacy with sound. He shares McCartney's gift for thinking beyond chord progressions in favor of shifting, classical-style harmonic patterns. Kahne is also a gifted string arranger, making him the best match in the booth that McCartney's had since George Martin.
Memory Almost Full opens with a light tune, "Dance Tonight." I originally thought a couple of other songs might make better lead-off tracks, but it's growing on me with third and fourth listens. (Just so you know who you're dealing with: Yes, I love roots music and rebel music, but I also have a place in my heart for well-crafted pop tunes -- and even silly love songs. What's wrong with that?) The next song, "Ever Present Past," raises the musical and lyrical ante as far as songwriting's concerned. Great playing and production, and what's that effect in the bridge? Sounds like a harpsichord being strummed like a guitar ...
(But Paul, why do you say you "don't have no time to be a decent lover"? It takes an hour at most, according to "Sixty Minute Man" by Billy Ward and the Dominoes.)
"See Your Sunshine" is a midtempo ballad, more Wings than Beatles, but with a more contemporary production feel. "Only Mama Knows" opens with strings and then rocks hard and heavy. And make no mistake -- McCartney always could rock. You death metal acolytes who disagree should go back and listen to "Helter Skelter." Not only did the guitars cut through metal, but the song inspired an infamous crime. How's that for edge? (No worries, though -- this tune is more uplifting than that.)
Lyrically, "Mr. Bellamy" reintroduces McCartney's literate lyrical touch. He mines Eleanor Rigby territory, short-story style, for this tale of a man who won't come down from a tree. It's one of many songs that would fit perfectly on a Beatles album. "Oh, yeah," you'll remind yourself. "This is the guy who wrote all those songs ..."
Musically, "Mr. Bellamy" draws on the lesser-known side of McCartney as innovator. McCartney was the first Beatle to listen to Stockhausen, to work with tape loops, to study pop art. He had a long-term career in experimental music, often under the name "The Fireman." (See The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde, by Ian Peel.) Paul never seemed to get credit from the intelligentsia for all that experimentation, however, probably because they thought he was just so darned cute. (Call him the John Edwards of rock and roll.)
The four-song medley that follows "Gratitude" will strike a chord with many Baby Boom listeners. Just as Sgt. Pepper led them into adolescence and early adulthood, these songs will walk them through the big issues of aging and mortality. "Don't live in the past," sings Paul in "Vintage Clothes."
"What we are is what we wear/and what we wear is vintage clothes." But with that Liverpool accent, couldn't Paul be saying that "what we were is vintage clothes"? "Who cares if we look like a girl or boy," he sings, placing himself in the bygone days or long hair and Indian clothing. But "what went out is coming back," he adds with bravado. Then "That Was Me" plays like a photo album of Macca's life, with a classic McCartney descending bass line for good measure: "That was me sweating cobwebs/under contract/in the Cellar/on TV ..." And Paul always seemed to be the one that was sweating, making sure the band got it right, even in the Beatlemania days.
From there's it's straight on to "Feet in the Clouds," where he avers that "I know that I'm not a square as long as they're not around." Right. He was the clean one, the nice one, while John and George seemed to have the edge -- of revolution and mysticism, respectively. This reminder of what Paul and we have lost tugs gently at the soul. The tune moves into a Brian Wilson like chorale. Man, there's some great guitar in this medley, too. (And for guitar buffs, what the hell is he playing to get that tone? One of those old Epiphone Casinos -- but through what amp? A Vox? Something else? We're not in Fender country anymore...)
"House of Wax" combines compelling lyric imagery with a burning guitar lead, and leads into the song that made my wife cry, and didn't leave me unaffected. "End of the End" is Paul's meditation on death -- and this is a guy who walked closely with it, between his wife and his bandmates. This tune is the heart and soul of the album, beautiful melodically and lyrically, and every bit as important -- on a generational scale -- as anything the Beatles ever did. Will it have that kind of impact? Hard to tell in this new and different zeitgeist -- but it deserves to.
Paul being Paul, he closes the album with an all-out rocker called "Nod Your Head." And he can rock. For you political junkies out there, it should be noted there are no political statements, no "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" (a tune that came out while I was visiting a girlfriend in Sweden in 1970 or so, and made the TV news there: Beatle supports Northern Irish independence.) This is Paul's meditation on time and life, not revolution. But his Starbucks deal is kind of revolutionary, in the sense that it further reinforces the obsolescence of record companies. I might have hoped that Paul would stir up the industry even more, maybe by creating a new Internet-based label (called "iMac"??), but at least he's forging a new path independently of the dinosaur companies that have killed rock and roll.
The musical vitality of this album is life-affirming in what are often dark days. Paul has lost none of his gifts at aged 65. That should prove inspirational to legions of depressed boomers who think their lives are all but over. And his fans in every generation finally have an album that they can celebrate as an album, not just as a smattering of mp3 files to be scattered across a thousand disjointed playlists.
Some people, especially cappuccino addicts, may rebel at the ubiquity of this album in weeks to come. You can bet they'll play it over and over again in every Starbucks in America. I think the Starbucks deal is a brilliant move, personally, but some Baby Boomers will insist that they won't buy the record because they don't want it forced on them.
Bulls**t. They'll buy it anyway. It's that good.
You can buy the deluxe edition of the CD from Amazon here.
UPDATE: The initial publicity on the album is incorrect. His band is featured on six tracks, and we'll post more information as we get it. The band is one of the hottest around, and members (in alphabetical order) are: Rusty Anderson (guitar), Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums), Brian Ray (bass and guitar), and Paul "Wix" Wickens (keyboards).
(more music writing from RJ Eskow)