PAUL McCARTNEY IS having a good 21st century. His 20th wasn’t bad either. Why even bring this up? It’s not as if he needs more people to say nice things about him. No one denies his way with a melody. Moms and dads, 20- and 30-somethings, teens and tweens still listen to the Beatles. My daughter’s fifth grade chorus sang “Hey Jude” at this year’s spring concert, followed by a standing ovation. In his blessed time with us, he has received as much love, success, and adoration as anyone could possibly process in one life.
He’s arguably the most famous pop musician in the world. He’s also looked upon, by many who take their pop music seriously, as someone whose genuinely productive days are so long past that they belong not only to another generation but to another world entirely. Paul’s cool index, merciless barometer that it is, plunged so low along the way that it’s hard to remember he was once every bit as cool as the late Plastic Ono Man himself.
Blame this fall on what you will: his audacity, perhaps, to crown himself king of “Silly Love Songs” when he was experiencing yet more massive success with Wings, his other band. Or his insistence on letting plenty of light into his music, on Letting It Be, on living the life he laid out in some of his best-loved Beatles songs: his undying (some might say admirable, or at least enviable) impulse to take a sad song and make it better.
Also, over the course of his 50-odd-year career, he made some records that weren’t very good.
This might help explain why McCartney’s late-career resurgence, unlike Bob Dylan’s, has not made much of a stir. Of course his tours are wildly successful, although, from what I’ve heard, he doesn’t play a lot of material from the past 30 years or so, other than a handful of songs from whatever record he’s touring to support. It’s true that he has more hits than he can sing in a three-hour concert: another burden of being so well-loved. If I could afford a ticket, however, I would be among the small percentage actually wanting to hear the later stuff.
My middle-aged mania for late-stage McCartney was set off, as so many manias are, by a song on the radio: “Sun is Shining” from 2008’s Electric Arguments, one of Paul’s collaborations with the producer known as Youth; when they get together they become “The Fireman.” The song is something of what you might expect, in that its musical construction is impeccable and it’s about sunshine. Something, however, felt especially tasteful – maybe the way its na-na-na-na-nas melted their way out of the chorus, or his boyish, Liverpudlian pronunciation of “curtains” as he looks through the window at the sun. Anyway, I bought the record.
Electric Arguments starts with “Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight,” a 5-minute screaming fit that references some kind of betrayal but swings back around to admit that life remains “nothing too much, just out of sight.” Paul is either inspired or off his nut, I thought upon hearing it, and who knows the difference anyway?
The rest of the record makes clear that he’s not off his nut. He is “content to cry, no more to lie.” Being Paul, however, he doesn’t cry for long. He’s ready to “sing the changes.” He wants you to “light up the sky with your message.” To someone real or imagined, he sings “be my lifelong passion.” Throughout Arguments, he’s reaching beyond the usual; it’s clear that producer Youth ably encourages Paul’s experimental gene. Much of the music is gorgeous, and here’s the other thing: he’s singing as well as he ever has. Lifelong passion, it seems, is the whole point of the record – a worthy theme for an artist of McCartney’s talents.
All of this I found very surprising. It was 2008, and I’d heard little of what he’d done for the past 35 years. How was I to respond, knowing now that Paul still cares?
I did the honorable thing: I bought another record.
Driving Rain, from 2001, is McCartney’s first set of original songs released after the loss of his beloved Linda. As such, it is also rife with worthy themes and the voice of a man singing as if his life depended on it, which it obviously did at the time. On “From a Lover to a Friend,” the tone of the vocal approaches Ray Davies’ at his most vulnerable. The song seeks to settle accounts: “And when the time comes ‘round, we will be duty-bound, to tell the truth of what we’ve seen.” In the lyric’s ambiguity there’s lingering pain. Who’s the lover? Who’s the friend? Is he singing to a new love (Heather, who was to become his second wife, who makes other appearances on the record)? Or maybe it’s a plea to the departed Linda in the song’s whispered ending: “Let me love again.” Most likely, all these things are happening at once.
The whole record’s got a surprisingly spontaneous feel. It’s a well-rehearsed rock ‘n’ roll band for sure, one of McCartney’s best, but the rough edges are intact, as they are with Paul’s voice, which has never sounded looser. “Back in the Sunshine Again,” to return to a familiar motif, is a lifetime away from “Good Day Sunshine.” Its minor bluesy setting covers an undertow: the sound of a man desperate to convince himself that everything’s going to be okay. “Here we are, back in the sunshine again,” he says, “no more worry, no more pain.” But the bridge makes plain the effort involved: “Life’s too short to spend it lonely, you only throw it away / Listen to your voice of reason, call it a day.” There’s an exhausting mental process going on out there in the sunshine, and the vocal – all edge, no room for a relaxed breath – perfectly brings this home.
So I had to keep going. I did the obvious thing. I bought another record.
2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which, despite its hefty title, is extraordinarily light-touched, with arrangements driven by Paul’s piano, bass playing (still a wonder after all these year), and an overlay of strings. Backyard’s charming and, dare I say, Beatles-y “Friends to Go” has good Sir Paul hiding out in his girlfriend’s back room: “I’ve been waiting on the other side / for your friends to leave so I don’t have to hide / I’d prefer they didn’t know / I’ve been waiting on the other side for your friends to go.” This glimpse of Beatle in hiding is touching, and a touch ornery as well. He’d really rather not have to explain himself. “At the Mercy,” on the other hand, is at least an attempt to come out from hiding: “I guess you’d rather see me grow / into a better man that the one you know.” Well, of course; but it’s a beautiful admission most men would rather leave to someone else.
“English Tea” wedges itself securely within the Beatles’ soundscape. Amid tasteful strings that sound almost like a parody of tasteful strings, McCartney pokes fun at a certain brand of British refinement, inviting a friend to croquet at the estate, where “nanny bakes / fairy cakes / every Sunday morning.” The melody blossoms into a perfect bridge imagining miles and miles of English gardens; even the “lines of hollyhocks and roses listen most attentively.” The acoustic “Jenny Wren,” set to a guitar reminiscent of “Blackbird,” nevertheless generates its own lovely melody. “Like the other girls, Jenny Wren could sing,” the story goes. Unfortunately, “wounded worriers took her song away.” Like Paul, she gets it back.
If it hadn’t already, the Paul-Is-Lame myth gasped its last when I purchased, for a penny and the price of postage, Memory Almost Full, a record from 2007 about which I’d never heard a word from a living soul. Of course there were the loyalist reviewers on Amazon, but who listens to them? (Me.) The title is a clever digital-age acknowledgement that the end, in some sense, is near, or maybe it implies that his memory is so full it requires some genuine relief, hence this record. In “That Was Me,” my favorite reminiscence, we find the lad Paul at various vulnerable moments, “sweating cobwebs, under contract, in the cellar, on TV” and “a cappella, at the altar, in the middle of the picture.” “Feet in the Clouds” goes so far as to reference a nagging deficit of cool: “I know that I’m not a square, as long as they’re not around / but I find it very very very very very very hard.” Harmonies surprise as they sweep in and out like visitations from Wilson brothers both living and dead. It is, as the Boys say, fun, fun, fun.
Most startling of all is “House of Wax,” in which “poets spill out on the street” and “can only dream of life away from their confusion.” Sounds like real life, right? The vocal gracefully skirts the top of McCartney’s range until combining both top and bottom to deliver the chorus: “Hidden in the yard, underneath the wall / buried deep below, a thousand layers / may be the answer to it all.” This is followed twice by utterly over-the-top (i.e., perfect) guitar solos by Rusty Anderson that sound like David Gilmour with a toe in the socket. When I listen while driving (when I usually listen), the effect is inspiring enough to lift me out of the driver’s seat, through the roof of the car and into the fields and sky beyond. Amid chaos and creation, with overstuffed memory or not, Paul is indeed still digging madly for bones and treasure in his own backyard.
On Electric Arguments there’s an ambient little number called “Is This Love?” that for me underscores Paul’s music post-Linda, if I can be so bold as to divide his career in this terribly personal and highly presumptuous way: before and after widower-hood. (Great artists often make you feel like you know them, so I’ll proceed with the illusion.) It’s fine to say that one will settle for nothing less than love, and McCartney has said this quite well all along. But how do you follow up a long marriage that by all accounts actually worked? Digging in the proverbial backyard, how do you know when you’re there, when you’ve found “the answer to it all?” On another Electric Arguments song he advises “don’t stop running,” that is, don’t let up, and from the sound of things, he hasn’t. “Is This Love,” however, finally opens into a question of basic identity, whether it’s addressed to a lover or a friend: “Help me find my sister, brother / Help me find my father, mother / Help me, help me, help me / Is this love?” It’s a question that prompts him to keep working at a level befitting his gifts.
All of the records I’ve mentioned – and even a couple others left out of this little roundup – feature a long stretch of songs with the craft and feeling of McCartney in his heyday, to the point where I’ve had the hitherto unimaginable thought, “he’s having another heyday!” Am I mad? No. His ability to tell a good story – for which he’s rarely given much credit – has deepened as he’s aged. He’s gotten better at taking his old pal John’s advice to “feel your own pain,” and working this into his melodic la-la land. And, for those still unsure, that’s a compliment.
I recently mentioned to an intelligent, gifted friend who writes about music that I was working on this Paul piece, and he said “so, you mean he’s been doing stuff that’s not terrible?” So this is where one must begin, by saying Paul McCartney has made a lot of music during the current century that is much better than terrible. More and more, I think of him the way I do of Dylan, as a generally hard-working musician who is playing out his life, a song at a time. In the end, even the truckloads of glory and money have not proven to be more important than this.