When you have a recorded legacy as monumental as the one possessed by Paul McCartney, it’s difficult to make a dent in it, especially these days when new releases by even the most prestigious of artists suffer quickly deteriorating shelf lives. I would argue though that the three-album stretch begun with Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (I’m not counting the specialty album Kisses On The Bottom) is the finest such stretch of his post-Beatles career. And it all began with this with cumbersomely-titled 2005 album, on which producer Nigel Godrich coaxed Paul to dig deeper, bite harder, and edit more carefully, all while doing his one-man band thing for an album as intimate as the end of the evening and as bracing as the first cold light of day. Here is a song-by-song review:
13. “At The Mercy”- The one song here where all of the instrumental passages, while lovely on their own, don’t quite cohere into something greater. It’s too bad, because it’s not often that you get Paul talking about darker emotions like “the fear inside.”
12. “Anyway”- I feel like this song, while pleasant enough, sends the album out on a bit of a recessive note, even with the off-kilter instrumental coda that lengthens its running time.
11. “Too Much Rain”- Essentially a rewrite of the old standard “Smile,” with maybe a little less of the obvious undercurrent of melancholy that the old song possessed. Not bad, but not earth-shaking either.
10. “Promise To Your Girl”- There’s more than a little bit of “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” in this, the album’s lone true rocker. It has the same kind of shapeshifting quality, at times charging ahead recklessly, at times stopping to ponder its whereabouts with dreamy falsetto vocals. That it holds together is a credit to McCartney’s compositional acumen.
9. “English Tea”- For all of those critics who feel like McCartney can get overly precious at times, this song must grate to no end. I, on the other hand, kind of like the idea of Paul skidding into the curve with this one, owning up to his tweeness with a Victorian era melody and exaggeratedly proper diction. An album’s full of this stuff would be deadly, but one for fun is just fine.
8. “How Kind Of You”- This one takes some clever musical turns, making the gratitude expressed by Paul in the song sound almost desperate. There are many times on this album where the lyrics somehow deepen within their interesting musical surroundings, and this is one of them.
7. “A Certain Softness”- McCartney loves slipping these exotic little numbers onto each album, showing his preference for a mellow, almost jazzy mood now and again. Sounds a little like something Antonio Carlos Jobim might have concocted for Frank Sinatra, which is a good thing.
6. “Friends To Go”- Macca dedicated this one to George Harrison, but I don’t see the connection. If anything, the story of the lyrics slightly recalls The Beatles “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” in the way they detail a wallflower’s wish to remain undetected. One of many tracks on the album that come at us from a funky perspective, making the familiar sound strange and novel.
5. “Follow Me”- Like “My Love” many years before it, “Follow Me” overcomes lyrics that might be considered trite on the page thanks to the moving tug of the music. The verses arch upward hopefully, while the middle eight steps unto the breach, fearlessly bringing our narrator to a much-needed friend. The uplift comes without any forcing, so that can feel good about being gently manipulated into warm fuzzies by a master.
4. “This Never Happened Before”- Consider this one along the lines of “Only Love Remains.” It’s clearly in the vein of adult contemporary, tailor-made for a big-screen romance (and it was indeed used in the bizarre Keanu Reeves time-travel tale The Lake House.) And yet the craft McCartney possesses ensures that it’s quite stirring, as it saunters around in the first half before building to quite a momentous climax.
3. “Fine Line”- One of the odder opening tracks and lead singles in McCartney’s oeuvre, yet it’s compelling nonetheless. The off-kilter, almost dissonant piano riff is actually much more like Harrison than anything in “Friends To Go,” and it draws you in. Even though the lyrics don’t necessarily connect the dots, there are enough intriguing lines to keep you inspecting it. Plus it sets the tone for an album that, as a whole, comes at you from a slight different angle than the usual Macca release (and is the better for it.)
2. “Riding To Vanity Affair”- Since torment often breeds art, it can be argued that the relatively smooth sailing that Paul and Linda McCartney’s relationship enjoyed was not conducive to inspiration. Paul more than compensated over the years, but this moody, piercing track, perhaps aimed at Heather Mills, perhaps not, you be the judge, operates at a rather prickly frequency. And the thing is, Macca was always really good at these types of songs way, way back; I’m thinking of Beatles’ gems like “I’m Looking Through You” and “You Won’t See Me,” from the days when he and Jane Asher were undergoing a tumultuous romance. Kudos to Godrich for pushing him to improve the lyrics of this song; McCartney responded with a suitably stinging rebuke of fake friends.
1. “Jenny Wren”- Again, there’s a bit of a Beatle callback here. Once upon a time, McCartney mesmerized with a toe-tapping, acoustic, avian-inspired number called “Blackbird.” Here he captures that same kind of sound, albeit with an encroaching darkness surrounding it, emphasized by the strangely hypnotic solo from the duduk. My, this is a stunning melody. And Paul fills it with lyrics that dare us to interpret their fascinating suggestions. I’ve always read the song as a lament at how women are left to clean up the messes of antagonistic men. Jenny seems like a Cassandra character, seeing and speaking the truth but never heeded. Somehow both gorgeous and deeply sad. Gun to my head, I’d say it’s the finest song he’s done since Wings’ implosion.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available from the link below or at any online bookseller.)