Paul McCartney largely took the middle part of the 1980’s off, with the exception of 1986’s Press To Play. Some might snicker that he might as well have sat that one out too, and there is some merit to that argument. As brilliant a producer as Hugh Padgham and as adventurous a songwriter as Eric Stewart might have been, their styles seemed to clash with McCartney’s instead of complimenting it. He deserves credit for trying something out of his comfort zone, but, for the most part, McCartney seems at sea here, which, combined with a dearth of memorable songs, hamstrings this album. Here is a song-by-song-review:
10. “Pretty Little Head”- Sounds like it was crafted for a Miami Vice scene where Crockett and Tubbs have to find the drug dealers in a dense jungle. As much as I love Miami Vice, this is not a compliment, especially since the style didn’t suit McCartney whatsoever.
9. “Talk More Talk”- While the experimentation and wacky wordplay is admirable, the sterile production keeps this from being more than an oddity that won’t interest you more than once or twice.
8. “Angry”- If there was a target to this diatribe in song, it’s now lost to the mists of time, as McCartney himself might put it. What’s certain is that the participation of Pete Townsend and Phil Collins is largely wasted on this feisty but underwritten and overdone track.
7. “Press”- Imagine a television with a brightness knob. In the 1980’s, pop music production brightened from the sleepy twilight of the late 70’s until it hit just the right level and the day-glo colors popped perfectly around 1984. Only they kept turning the knob up until we could no longer distinguish the substance behind the blinding light. That’s the best way to describe this, one of McCartney’s least effective singles ever.
6. “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”- A nice little reggaefied workout, that, despite the title, contains some creeping melancholy. McCartney’s bass work is as nimble as could be expected. The second half of the song is a bit more musically mundane, but not an embarrassment by any means.
5. “Stranglehold”- The opener mixes some rockabilly acoustic guitar, soulful horns, and a stop-and-start rhythm into something promising. The lyrics nicely conjure the sweet agony of anticipated passion quite well. Here the production doesn’t get too busy and the song is better for it.
4. “Move Over Busker”- Paul is on much firmer footing with this funny rocker. The lyrics seem to suggest that the musician doesn’t hold as much weight in the world as the bigger stars he encounters; the title alone implies a kind of disrespect for what McCartney does. He has the last laugh, however, since the song swaggers with more raucous confidence than most movies can ever hope to achieve.
3. “However Absurd”- The title is apropos here. The music suggests something of great circumstance, as it seems to be intentionally overbaked what with the stomping drums and the stressed-out strings and all. Meanwhile the lyrics contain some striking individual lines, even if they don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things. At times it almost seems like a Rutles track parodying an earnest Beatles ballad. Not sure what Paul was after, but it’s fascinating anyway.
2. “Footprints”- McCartney has always had a soft spot in his songwriting for the outsider who many of us might not even consider, the still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow with a whole world going on behind his staid expression, a world about which we can only guess. “Footprints” is played with great touch and sensitivity by the instrumentalists and features a melody that takes you to places you never expect when the ride begins. An understated but affecting character sketch.
1. “Only Love Remains”- I know you’re not supposed to make a ballad the lead single, but I wonder if Press To Play might be regarded a bit differently if Paul had led with this atmospheric, romantic, grand slam of a ballad. Tony Visconti’s orchestration is subtle until it needs to be sweeping, and Paul’s melody soars when it’s not allowing a little bit of doubt to creep in to keep things honest. There’s not a false moment, and the message may be time-worn, but it’s still crucial. We all can get caught up with things that ultimately don’t matter too much, but songs like this, especially when rendered by a master like Macca, set us straight on what’s truly important and resonant.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. And preorder my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s available in March.)
The credits on the The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan say that this song was arranged and adapted by Bob, but it’s fair enough to argue that this is an original composition. After all, there are a ton of different versions of the song in circulation, and none of them appear to bear too much resemblance to Dylan’s version. That’s why I’m allowing it on this list, which is meant only for songs that Dylan wrote or co-wrote.
There is a pleasant, lilting feel to the proceedings here that show Dylan’s ability to take on lighter material. Anyone who expected him to be only a dour protest singer or lovesick balladeer, two roles he played extensively on Freewheelin’, might have been surprised by the touch he displays on “Corrina, Corrina”. He even drops in a supple falsetto just to show off a bit. It’s also one of the first examples of how he could interpret a song with a band alongside him rather than with his acoustic guitar as sole accompaniment.
One little digression here: Although much of my time has been spent the last few weeks writing or researching for this project, I’ve been trying, little by little, to get through the 4-CD compilation of Dylan covers just released on behalf of Amnesty International. I haven’t made it through the whole thing yet.
The funny thing is that, if you had put those 70 songs before me in Dylan’s versions as a playlist, I could listen to it all day. As for the covers, it’s a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of artists are either laying on the performances too thick or missing the point of the songs by a pretty wide margin. It’s for a good cause though, so there’s no sense in complaining too much.
Anyway, one of the covers I did hear and like was Pete Townshend’s take on “Corrina, Corrina.” He doesn’t try to do too much with it, which would have a mistake. I also like his choice of material. I suspect that a lot of young up-and-comers are drawn to the wordiest stuff, trying to show they’re up to it when the vast majority of them aren’t. Townshend has nothing to prove, and his effortlessness is engaging. And that effortlessness, after all, is what Dylan managed all those years ago on the original.