Just turn your ear for a moment to the buzz attending Paul McCartney’s latest album. His first collection of originals in six years, titled simply, New, came with the predictable oohs and ahhs. Oh, the Beatle-esqueness of it all. The warmth and steel of his 71-year-old pipes. The grace of his melodies and the unexpected shrieks, whirs and purposeful murk in its electronic japery. But in the absence of the work itself all those promises are at best meaningless — McCartney is a living legend, a hero to generations. Journalists WANT him to succeed, and frankly so do we. Particularly if it means 45-plus minutes of lovely new Paul McCartney music.
So how terrific that New is pretty much exactly that. From the album-opening rocker “Save Us,” the songs are tautly constructed, melodic and – I swear I’m not kidding – lyrically compelling. The intellectual laziness that defines so many of McCartney’s solo songs is nowhere to be found.
(for in-depth McCartney’s life and career with and without the Beatles you might want to check out my 2009 biography, Paul McCartney: A Life)
Instead, we get the engaging obscurities in “Alligator” and, better yet, the prosaic revelations described in the sweet, mid-tempo “On My Way to Work.” Like for instance, and I just love this for some reason:
“On my work to work I bought a magazine/Inside a pretty girl, liked to waterski/She came from Chichester to study history/She had removed her clothes for the likes of me.”
It’s that bit about waterskiing that knocks me backwards (what a weird detail, and yet exactly what dirty magazines make a point of noting). Next, a brief guitar break turns dark and driving, leading to a final verse where the ka-chunk of the office time clock brings a small vision:
“I could see everything, how we came to be/People come and go, smoking cigarettes/I pick the packets up when the people leave.“
Wherein lies one of McCartney’s most valuable traits — his eye for the magic of everyday life and motion. We fancy folk don’t often turn to janitors and nudie magazines for existential philosophy, but this artist sees more than we do. The real payoff, however, comes in the choruses that reveal the narrator’s passing fascinations as a symptom of the intimacy he never found in his own life:
“How could a soul search everywhere/Without knowing what to do?”
So okay, “Everybody Out There” falls a bit short in the lyric department, but the next tune is “Hosanna,” which pits a dark melody and pulsing bass against layers of electronic drone and tape loop shriekery unheard on a Paul song since “The White Album.”
And so it goes pretty much song for song, all with their own intrigue (OMG, the texture of his aged voice when singing, a touch bitterly, about the young Beatles on “Early Days”) and delight. Those perfect melodic fillips; the layers of joy in his stacked harmonies; the irresistible sweetness in the bouncy title track, which is as heavy as helium and as lovely as a summer morning.
Does that make it (yet) another silly love song? Not even. If only for the startling assertion McCartney makes a song earlier in “Early Days”:
“They can’t take it from me if they tried/I lived through those early days/So many times I had to change the pain to laughter/Just to keep from getting crazed.”
It ain’t easy. So float away on “New” right now; consider the expressions on the faces you see and imagine what waits for them when their feet crunch back into the dirt below.