Another 20 years of great Paul McCartney songs, and thus the line-up for my imaginary second disc in the Paul solo box set. Think we’ve got another 20 years of new songs ahead of us? I wouldn’t bet against it.
DISC 2 – 1990-2010
1. Hope of Deliverance – A sort of ecumenical prayer for peace and understanding…and as such it might be insufferable were it not for the tautly-strummed acoustic guitars, the easy tumble of the chords and another one of those melodies that seem so elegant and perfect it could only tumble out of the sky and right into the fingertips. “we live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.” Well, of course. But when you sing it with that melody it sounds as sweet and pure as a warm breeze.
2. Little Willow – An acoustic ballad from 1997 sung to the children of Ringo Starr, whose mother, Maureen, had just died of cancer. “Life, as it happens/Nobody warns you/Willow, hang on tight,” he sings, surely delving into the memory of his own mother’s breast cancer death when he was a tender 14. And, perhaps, with the dread of someone whose own wife was struggling with the same disease.
3. Great Day – The get-the-kids-out-of-bed song from the McCartney household, meant to learn the smaller McC’s into their clothes, down to breakfast and out into the world. Linda pipes in on the harmonies, and it’s a small vision of family heaven, with the grown-up world just beyond the gates. “…and it won’t be long, no, no, won’t be long/It won’t be long…”
4. Blue Jean Bop – And then Linda died. After trundling through his own vision of hell for an excruciating year, McCartney pulled together a small, Cavern Club-like combo of all-stars (e.g., David Gilmour on lead guitar), strapped on his bass, counted to four and hurled himself back into the world. The resulting album, ‘Run Devil Run’ starts here, and the dreamy intro into ‘Blue Jean’ is alone worth the price of admission (just hear the deliverance in his voice when he sings, “…can’t keep still, so baby let’s dance!”, the drums come in and the whole thing jets skyward. One of the most purely autobiography-of-the-soul moments in his entire catalogue.
5. Shake a Hand – There is precisely one man on earth who can out-Little Richard Little Richard. And if you thought he needed the lungs and throat of a 22-year-old to do it, guess again. At 57 McCartney — his back against the wall, his fingernails scraping for purchase — screams like anunhinged banshee, blasting the weight of the world into powder.
6. She’s Given Up Talking – Back in the world, McCartney met Heather Mills, fell in love and launched into what would be the most publicly disastrous relationship he would ever have. The less said the better on that one, but it’s still worth looking back for the hotspots on 2001’s ‘Driving Rain,’ the album that recorded (sort of) the story of their falling in love. Get past the lame songs and embarrassingly bad stretches of lyrics (“one, two, three, four, five/Let’s go for a drive!” and etc.), and look for gems like this dark portrait of a curiously misanthropic school girl who has, for some unexplained reason, taking a vow of public silence. That’s weird enough, but married to the boom of the drums, the zoom of the bass and the sonic distortion around the lead guitar and vocal, it’s five minutes of dark secrets, grim allusions and who knows what all.
7. Rinse the Raindrops – Included for surprise value — hey, it’s a free-form 10:13 live jam with his hot-handed touring group! Check out how the drumsticks audibly shatter at one point, and the drummer reloads instantly, and follows the count into a completely different rhythm/take on the song. Repeat. Let the energy expand into something like chaos. Turn it up first, though. Then, quick!, turn the record OFF before it gets to that dismal ‘Freedom’ song.
8. Friends to Go – In which Paul claims the misanthropic persona for himself, and tips a bit of his hand as the much-older husband to a young fashionista whose friends — now gathered in the living room — are far too much for the man to handle. So he takes refuge in his room, counting the seconds until the dismal crowd skitters out to the clubs or wherever. Does this signal some looming unpleasantness in the marriage itself? Hmm. “I’ve been sliding down a slippy slope/I’ve climbing up a slowly burning rope…” I dunno. What do you think?
9, Kicked Around No More – A b-side from the ‘Hope of Deliverance’ cd-single in 1993 (apologies again to chronologueists), this synth-based ballad follows a gentle r&b-influenced, two-chord vamp through a jilted lover’s various plaints. Simplicity is a virtue here, due in part to the gauzy layers of background oohs and ahs that hearken back to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Right up until it pivots lightly into the bridge whose melody rides the up and downdrafts of rising, then tumbling chords following the lyrics’ drift back to a more honest admission of who did what to whom: “My life could be so sweet/I can’t remember when I started running/the water underneath the bridge can’t keep the secret/She’s still running home.” Lovely all around.
10. Mr. Bellamy – From the wonderfully named ‘Memory Almost Full’ album of 2007, as well as the same school of ‘She’s Given Up Talking.’ This piano-led tune plays out like a minimalist short story in which the narrator, for unexplained reasons, makes a dramatic break from mainstream society. Here, the titular Bellamy climbs up onto some high purchase (a rooftop? a ledge?) and revels in his sense of liberation. “I’m not coming down, no matter what you do/I like it up here, without you.” The music fusses, shakes its head and seems much more comfortable with McC’s low-voiced, monotonic counter-melody, which seems to come from sinister protectors/persecutors: “Sit tight, Mr. Bellamy,” they murmur. “This shouldn’t take long.” Of course Bellamy wants no such help, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
11. Vintage Clothes – More from ‘Memory Almost Full.’ The album ends (save for a throwaway encore at the very end) with a five-song autobiographical suite which varies widely in tone, sound and effectiveness from song to song. This one’s a stand-out — a positively Beatle-esque reflection of life as a series of fashion as a symbol for both the endless pace of cultural change, and also the circular nature of life’s patterns. “Check the rack/What went out is coming back,” he sings, and you don’t have to be 65 to know how right he is.
12. The End of the End – A sweet and yet clear-eyed examination of the inevitability of death, with no regrets and no tears. Instead, this softspoken piano-and-strings ballad settles for poetic, with verses with all the circular rhythm and logic of the tides: “On the day that I die I’d like bells to be rung/And songs that were sung to be hung out like blankets/That lovers had played on, and laid on while listening to songs that were sung.” Elegant, stirring, sad and uplifting, all at the same time.
13. Two Magpies – At which point we encounter the Fireman — an experimental music duo he formed with the British dj Youth — and “Electric Arguments,” the first album of non-electronica songs. They began the project with a concept. They’d come to the studio with nothing prepared, and by the time they left they had to have a completely finished track. So what happens when Paul writes off the top of his head minus his usual editing/second-guessing/polishing processes? The listener gets drawn deep into the man’s teeming consciousness. Which bears a compelling resemblence to the “White Album.” Consider this slightly off-kilter acoustic guitar song, which spins a traditional bit of English doggerel (the magpie bit) into a tale of loneliness, fear and love. The stand-up bass rumbles and creaks, digitized scraps of vocal/effects whisper and crackle. “Face down fear,” he sings to himself. It’s kind of magical.
14. Sing the Changes – More from ‘Electric.’ A chiming, glowing track based around three chords, a soaring melody and awe for the transcendent natures of music and art: “”Every ladder leads to heaven,” he declares. “Everywhere the sound of childlike wonder.” He may also be describing his own joy at plucking this song out of empty space and then spinning it into a small, sparkling jewel.
15. Sun is Shining – A transcendentalist at heart, McCartney headed into the ‘Electric’ sessions this day flush with the memory of that very morning, and all other mornings that have, and will, be just like it: “Every morning, I get up/Sun is shining, I get up…” But there’s more, too. A delicious bass riff pulsing off the high end of the neck, a kind of ethereal ringing on the end of the track and layers of Paul’s clear, joyous voice. As with virtually all of the songs on the album, ‘Sun is Shining’ is a rudimentary composition. And yet, I think it’s lovely, and touched by exactly the same spirit that animates his most intricately composed songs.
Okay, admission time: I haven’t given a fair listen to the “Kisses on the Bottom” cd, so I can’t comment on those tunes one way or another. But here are some earlier songs that nearly, and maybe should have, made the list:
16. Here Today – From 1982’s “Tug of War,” Paul’s nose-to-nose tribute to Lennon, in which he acknowledges as much confusion, hurt feelings and angst as the admiration and love that never stopped (and apparently never will) affecting his sense of himself, his work and his existence on earth.
17. Matchbox – From ‘Tripping the Live Fantastic,’ an ass-kicking cover of the Carl Perkins song the Beatles first covered in 1963. Performed here as a duet with Hamish Stewart, with Robbie McIntosh making the slide guitar scream, it rolls past like a frieight train.
18. Picasso’s Last Words – Back to ‘Band on the Run,’ and a one-song suite that begins with a folksy tribute to the late Spanish painter, then pivots into a kind of cubist portrait of the entire album, with the various melodies, choruses, vocal lines and textures weaving into a climactic revisiting of the ‘Band on the Run’ title track chorus. Sounds heavy-handed and maybe even pretentious, you say? It isn’t. And when the bass takes up the ‘Picasso’ chorus’s melody at one point it sends tingles down to my toes.
19. Junk – A haunting little ballad rejected for the White Album, but revived (two times over) on ‘McCartney.’ Dark, brooding and unbelievably lovely. Some critics call it the best, most naturally flowing melody McCartney ever wrote. Which says a lot.
20. Band on the Run – Authority, anxiety, imprisonment. Then comes the bolt into the blue; the escape to the far side of the clouds. And what made that possible? And who does he have around him? Music and musicians. The band on the run. It’s Paul’s vision of heaven on earth. Which is maybe why the title track to his (arguably) best non-Beatles album is as heavenly as it is.