Thursday, November 7, 2013

CD Review: Paul McCartney—New (Hear Music)

Whenever Paul McCartney puts out a new album, the usual trolls come out of the woodwork to tell us that he’s done, he’s over the hill, he hasn’t done anything good since Band on the Run, he hasn’t done anything good since the Beatles broke up, he never did anything good, he should have stayed “dead.” Har har.

Of course, some of this nastiness is self-inflicted since McCartney is sometimes his own worst enemy: saccharine songs like “My Love,” “Ebony and Ivory” and “Freedom” are what detractors trot out when they try to knock him down. But for those listening closely to a half-century’s worth of music know better, and a new album, cheekily titled New, provides more ammunition for us.

For his first album of entirely original material in five years—his superb 2008 Fireman collaboration with producer Youth, Electric Arguments, was preceded by the solid 2007 solo album Memory Almost Full—McCartney sought out other producers, deciding to keep it partly in the “family” by having Beatles producer George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, as executive producer. Of the album’s 16 tracks—12 official songs and 4 extra tracks, depending on the configuration one gets—Martin produced 7, with Paul Epworth producing 4, Mark Ronson 2 and Ethan Johns 3.

But as always with McCartney, his own musical vision and personality add up to a wholly cohesive album despite the disparate musical personalities he works with. When 1997’s Flaming Pie was produced by Jeff Lynne—who made a cottage industry of turning George Harrison, Tom Petty and the Travelling Wilburys into sound-alikes—I was worried that Paul too would become Lynne-lite. Instead, Flaming Pie is the only Jeff Lynne-produced album that happily retains its own character.

So New, while shot through with an aural eclecticism courtesy of his four collaborators, remains a McCartney record through and through. The opening “Save Us,” a straight-ahead riff rocker, and the bouncy “Queenie Eye,” a hummable piano-driven sing-along, were both helmed by Epworth, along with “Road,” a dramatic ballad that thankfully falls just short of bombast. Those are the only songs where McCartney takes a co-writing credit (with Epworth): apparently they were improvised in the studio by the two men.

The rest of New is a glorious mélange of styles and sounds that finds Paul at his most effortlessly melodic and adventurous. The title tune is a joyous love song that harkens back to “Penny Lane”-era Beatles, “Hosanna” and “Looking at Her” marry naked emotions with sly arrangements, while the haunting piano ballad “Scared” (relegated to “hidden cut” status) shows Paul opening up in a way rare for him. On these songs—none of them in any sense “silly love songs”—Paul sings in the plaintive, cracking voice of a 71-year-old, which fits with their melancholic but hopeful optimism.

On “Alligator,” “Appreciate” and “Struggle,” Paul’s avant-pop leanings show through in the intricately busy rhythms, but those who say that he’s merely trying to keep up with contemporary sounds haven’t been listening to albums like McCartney II (“Temporary Secretary,” “Secret Friend” and “Check My Machine”), Press to Play (“Pretty Little Head”) and Flowers in the Dirt (“Ou Est le Soleil?”)—to pick just three from the decade of the ‘80s—where Paul mashes up rhythm tracks and tape loops with heavily processed vocals: it’s just Paul being Paul.

This wouldn’t be a McCartney album without an explicit nod to that other band he was in (no, not Wings): the earnest acoustic number “Early Days” nods back to when the Fab Four scrambled for gigs long before they were on top of the world. But on an album so consistently good, even filler like “Everybody Out There,” “I Can Bet” and “Get Me Out of Here” remains cheeky fun. On New, McCartney composes and performs with nothing to prove: he loves what he does, and he’ll keep doing it until the end.

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