Sir Paul's new album is his best solo work in decades.
The Cute One is tired of being cute. The man who gave us Silly Love Songs is getting serious.
On his 20th solo album, the dark, moody and often breathtaking Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Paul McCartney has written some of the most emotionally gutsy tunes of his post-Fab career, a 35-year output that was brilliant in the beginning (Band on the Run) but had grown tired toward the end (pretty much everything after 1982).
Let's be honest: When you pay to see McCartney in concert, the last thing you want to hear is new stuff. That's not why he was the top-grossing live act in 2002; that's not why this year's 37-city U.S. tour (which comes to a sold-out St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday) will rake in big bucks. You go for the classics. You go for the sing-alongs. You go for Hey Jude. It's hard to cheer for, say, 1997's Flaming Pie when you know that The Long and Winding Road is right around the corner.
But that's going to change when he plays chunks of Chaos and Creation. Trust me. For a man who has nothing left to prove, McCartney does so anyway, with several daring tracks (plus a bonus instrumental jam) that feature the 63-year-old icon on almost every instrument, including cello, drums and tubular bells.
Is there a legitimate pop hit in the new bunch? Not really, but that doesn't mean McCartney has totally abandoned his love of clever melodies. Opening cut Fine Line, the closest thing to radio-ready, has some chummy piano pounds and sing-along lyrics, but then opens up into a spacey break that's reminiscent of his trippier Wings work.
And for all you Beatlemaniacs, several songs, including the cheekily British English Tea with its sharp strings and jaunty melody, are obvious nods to the Lennon/McCartney songbook. The delicate acoustic lament Jenny Wren ("Like so many girls, Jenny Wren could sing. But a broken heart, took her song away") might as well be called Mother Nature's Daughter. It's a stunner for sure.
This isn't a one-man show, however. McCartney chose Nigel Godrich to produce the album, an ambitious choice and then some. Godrich is the knob-twiddler who made art-pop oddballs Radiohead and Brit-pop boys Travis sound like such epic head cases. Godrich, a notorious grump and control freak, demands big cinematic sounds and lonely vocals, and McCartney, obviously feeling inspired, provides both.
How Kind of You starts as a simple, spare love song, a thank-you to a paramour, perhaps wife Heather Mills, perhaps late first wife Linda McCartney. But just when you think the song's going to go one way - sweet, sappy, lovestruck - it goes the other, McCartney creating vaguely threatening storm clouds with his piano, his shaker, his flugelhorn (!). It's a "wow" moment you'll go back to again and again.
The spooky At the Mercy does a similar about-face, as McCartney tells a lover that despite his wealth and fame he's powerless before her. "Sometimes I'd rather run and hide than stay and face the fear inside," he sings, as the special guests in the Millennia Ensemble string section create a tumultuous underbelly.
Not everything works. In the press notes, McCartney says that Friends to Go reminds him of a George Harrison song and that "a psychiatrist could probably have a whale of a time with that one." But the go-nowhere song is frustratingly noncommittal, not George-esque enough and lyrically far too vague to land any sort of punch. This Never Happened Before is a solemn forced love letter ("I met you and now I'm sure, this never happened before") desperately in need of nuance.
For the most part, though, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is awash in surprises courtesy of a man who's kept his talent on cruise control for far too long. If this isn't necessarily a comeback album, it's definitely an artistic rebirth.
It should also provide plenty of gossip for Beatles nuts, who will comb through the lyrics to the subtly acerbic Riding to Vanity Fair looking for clues: "I was open to friendship, but you didn't seem to have any to spare," McCartney sings on the slowly building song, later adding: "That's the trouble with friendship: For someone to feel it, it has to be real."
Who's the song about? John Lennon? Michael Jackson? Yoko?! That juicy lil' mystery is just another reason why McCartney's latest will also be considered one of McCartney's best.
- Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic