I go back so far, I’m in front of me. – Paul McCartney
There’s a ferocity with which critics write about Paul McCartney. It’s either embarassingly gushing or oddly harsh. The oddly harsh part seems to stem from a position taken in either the Lennon or McCartney camps. The same way people stake a position on being either in the David Gilmour or Roger Waters camps. I have not looked into how serious the Peter Cetera camp is.
After some time with McCartney’s latest release, New, I’m reminded why his new work matters. I’m also reminded that he was written off as a washed up has-been by harsher critics as early as the 70’s. The 80’s were even more brutal for him. McCartney has certainly had ups and downs in his career, either in terms of critical acclaim or record sales (meaning, “didn’t go gold”). But, his work from roughly 1996 and forward is proving surprisingly consistent in its lyrical, musical, and artistic strength. This period coincides with several key events in his life: a) This work is all post-Beatles Anthology – a period kicked off by Jeff Lynne’s production of Flaming Pie, b) the passing of his wife and collaborator Linda, and c) last but not least, laying off the weed.
Interestingly, Heather Mills has proven to be a blip on his creative radar screen. Though, I’ve read that she’s the one who hoisted him up on the tee-totaler wagon’s weed equivalent.
I’m Talking 1970 and Forward
In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m a huge fan of Paul McCartney. My critical ethos would probably fall in the “embarrassingly gushing” category. Still, I seek to approach the subject objectively: Not all of his records are great. Two – OK, three – albums are painful if compared with the strengths of his other work. Every record, even to the most critical listener, has its moments though. For 30+ records (counting all Wings incarnations), that’s not bad.
New, however, falls in the same creative risk category as his Fireman records. And, as with those records, the risk pays off. You may not like every track, but you are listening to an artist at work – not a writer of anthems. He doesn’t have to write another #1, and he sounds comfortable with that fact. Since 1996, he’s been collaborating with producers that are stretching his sound – Jeff Lynne, David Kahne (The Strokes and Lana Del Ray), and Nigel Godrich (Beck and Radiohead). Most recently on New, his producers include Mark Ronson (Adele and Amy Winehouse), Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon), and Paul Epworth (Bruno Mars and Crystal Castles).
Many thought the subtexts of Memory Almost Full – from its title to the undertones of “Vintage Clothes” and “The End of the End” – indicated a final release. It certainly sounded like it could make for a nice, neat bookend.
In reality, to all his critics and naysayers, Memory Almost Full was one aspect of a different McCartney that has been emerging over the last ten or fifteen years. This McCartney doesn’t sound like the creative/production control freak he’s been called, and he’s more comfortable moving away from a previously proven creative formula. New is his best example of this. And, it works extremely well.