On the cover of Paul
McCartney's 20th studio solo album, one of the most influential artists of
his generation appears -- right below the corporate tie-in promotional
sticker offering a chance to win a luxury automobile -- as a sensitive,
artistic 20-year-old pensively strumming an acoustic guitar in his mum's
backyard. More than four decades later and a year short of turning 64, Macca
is in a nostalgic mood on "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," his first
new disc in four years, which arrives in stores today.
He breaks no new ground,
and he doesn't come anywhere close to the best moments from his storied
past. But at least he's done a better job of crafting appealing
faux-McCartney than the Rolling Stones did while trying to deliver ersatz
Stones on "A Bigger Bang."
McCartney clearly has
been inspired by his new love (second wife Heather Mills), his new daughter
(Beatrice, born in 2003) and his new band of gutsy young musicians, with
whom he's resumed a fairly busy touring schedule. (He returns to Chicago to
perform at the United Center on Oct. 18-19.)
'CHAOS AND CREATION IN THE BACKYARD'/ ***
played most of the instruments himself, leaving the band at home. (His
fantastic drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. appears on one track, and former
Jellyfish guitarist Jason Falkner contributes to a few others.) This lends a
sense of airless isolation -- the exact opposite of what this star needs at
this point. But he'd like us to think of these 13 songs as the long-overdue
sequel to his stripped-down 1970 solo bow "McCartney." (And forget about
1980's "McCartney II," because no one should ever have to listen to "Coming
Alas, there is
nothing here as exquisitely perfect as "Maybe I'm Amazed" or "Every Night,"
while there are several tunes as saccharine and dreadful as "Lovely Linda."
In "How Kind of You," over a grand piano and flugelhorn produced by Nigel
Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, Travis), McCartney croons, "I thought I'd never
find/A someone quite as kind as you." Gee, Paul, we all felt your loss
with Linda's death in 1998, but during your brief bachelorhood, was it
really that difficult to get a date?
In addition to rising
above such Hallmark card banalities, McCartney's biggest problem for the
last 45 years has been distinguishing his best ideas from his worst. He's
been complaining in the handful of interviews he's granted about what a hard
time Godrich gave him, challenging him in the studio. But if you ask me, the
producer didn't push him hard enough.
While "English Tea"
attempts to capture a sort of pastoral "Penny Lane" vibe, it winds up being
just unbearably twee. "A Certain Softness" returns to McCartney's beloved
1930s Rudy Vallee kitsch, which is never a good thing. And "Riding to Vanity
Fair" tries to incorporate some of the ambient weirdness of 1994's
"Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest," but ends up tuneless and plodding.
On the bright side,
the good moments are much better than anything Sir Paul has given us since
his fiery roots-rock cover album in 1999, "Run Devil Run." Or, if we're
talking about originals, since Wings.
The opening "Fine
Line" has the sort of irresistible bounciness that made us love McCartney in
the first place. "Jenny Wren" effectively revisits the finger-picking beauty
of "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Sun." On "Friends to Go," Paul channels
his mate George Harrison, musically if not lyrically, while the majestic
"Promise to You Girl" shifts between "Sgt. Pepper's"-style orchestral
ponderings and a rambunctious, up-tempo Britpop take on Motown, a la "Got to
Get You Into My Life."
But the coolest bits
come in the form of a hidden track at the end of the disc comprising three
unrelated musical snippets. Recorded as a lark, these find Macca casually
tossing off a dozen melodies that other bands would kill for, while bashing
away with the reckless glee of that twentysomething in the backyard who
appears on the cover.
This a reminder of
the incredible talent McCartney still possesses, as well as something that
makes you wish he had allowed himself to be challenged here -- either by his
new band or by a producer he'd actually listen to -- and recorded in a fast
and dirty way for real, instead of merely talking about it.