McCartney's 'Chaos' won't make fans forget solo debut


September 13, 2005


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.)





Unfortunately, Macca 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 Up" again.)

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.