There is nothing New about Paul McCartney's latest album and this is not a bad thing.
Since the Beatles broke up in 1970, it seems every new release from Paul was held up to the Beatle standard. John and George faced the same scrutiny, Ringo to a far less extent. Part of what made the Beatles so great was that they were clearly more than the sum of their parts. So how could any of them individually meet that standard? Following the break up, each of the Beatles had to find their own voice.
For Paul, finding that voice would take a couple of iterations. 1970's “McCartney", recorded on a four-track machine with Paul playing all the instruments and Linda providing occasional harmony, had a warm homegrown feel. Paul would return to the practice of playing all the instruments again and again throughout his career. And, while the follow-up “Ram" extended that relaxed feel - this time with an excellent group of studio musicians - there was a lot of talk at the time about McCartney’s nearly maniacal control in dictating note-for-note exactly what was to be played. Control was an issue for Paul, but so was the need for him to have someone to bounce ideas off of as had been the relationship with John and the other Beatles.
At this stage he was determined to form a new band. Wings went through a number of line-ups, with the most consistent members being Linda and former Moody Blue, Denny Laine. Getting Wings off the ground was a challenge, but a challenge that Paul appeared to relish. Playing live shows on college campuses throughout England, recording their first album “Wildlife" in just two weeks, following it up with "Red Rose Speedway" and a hit single with “My Love". McCartney was getting some traction, even if he wasn’t getting good reviews. With "Band on the Run" McCartney defined the Wings sound. A frothy pure pop confection with songs that often included unexpected rhythm changes and, what seemed like never-ending melodies that were undeniably catchy.
If McCartney with Wings had flaws it was that the songs, like the melodies, often appeared to come too easily - this was evident throughout the 70's with successive Wings releases. The music generally overshadowed the lyrics. But, Paul appeared to be taking it all in stride, creating number one hits and even taunting critics with the bass-driven Philly Soul of “Silly Love Songs”. Wings was not the Beatles; how could they have been? This was family man Paul and his band playing concerts out of the back of a truck and having fun doing it. Paul continued this approach and attitude even after Wings became so big that he was, once again, playing stadiums.
In 1980, when "Double Fantasy" came out; Beatle fans were happy to see John making music again, and maybe equally excited to see how Paul might respond to the return of his old partner. Competition would surely follow. "Tug of War", the album that followed John's untimely death, produced by George Martin, was seen as a return to form. "Pipes of Peace", "Give My Regards to Broad Street" were not. Neither was 1986’s Press to Play which saw McCartney teaming with Eric Stewart of 10CC and producer Hugh Padgham (XTC, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Phil Collins) for an updated sound. It was 1989's "Flowers in the Dirt" that saw Paul truly regain his footing and move forward.
As is the case with “New", 1989's "Flowers in the Dirt" saw Paul using multiple producers, Trevor Horn (Yes, The Buggles, ABC), Mitchell Froom (Suzanne Vega, Crowded House, The Bangles, Sheryl Crow) and George Martin. The album featured songs cowritten with Elvis Costello - another artists who has made collaboration a central part of his career. The album was a strong offering, an eclectic mix of styles that held together from beginning to end. Albums that followed garnered mixed reviews. 1997's "Flaming Pie" saw more collaboration, this time with Steve Miller and a mixed production roster that again included George Martin, along with Traveling WIlbury and former ELO frontman Jeff Lynne. The result was once again a very strong album with some of his most beautiful post-Beatle ballads.
It was McCartney's many side projects that would be a catalyst for renewal. After Linda's passing he made the raucous rock'n roll of "Run Devil Run". He even accompanied Alan Ginsberg on guitar as Ginsberg read one of his last poems. His classical work, though widely panned by critics, was another collaborative effort. This time, to articulate his musical vision in longer more complex forms. But, it would be the third album by The Fireman - an otherwise anonymous side project which had previously released two electronic music albums - that featured the kind of in-studio experimentation that would reconnect Paul to his past in order to define a new sound.
Following 9/11 McCartney assumed his elder statesmen role with a concert to rally New York. 2001's "Driving Rain" recorded in just two weeks and produced by David Kahne (The Strokes, Sugar Ray, New Order, Lana Del Rey) rocked hard. "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard", a soul searching outing that featured producer Nigel Godrich (Beck, Radiohead) was nominated for a Grammy for album of the year. "Memory Almost Full” which followed in 2007, with Kahne once again producing,
beautifully blended styles from across his career in what felt like a lively an inventive goodbye. Then out of the blue came 2008’s "Electric Arguments" - a psychedelic rave that seemed like some strange Beatles remix. Unlike the first two instrumental albums by The Fireman, "Electric Arguments" had vocals. Each song was created in a day, Paul playing all instruments using words taken from or inspired by snippets of poetry he'd been reading. Each song was then reworked in collaboration with co-producer Youth (a.k.a. Martin Glover of Take That, Wet Wet Wet, Depeche Mode, Dido) into a shimmering invention, a sound collage that became more infectious with each listening.
Throughout this period McCartney solidified the line-up of his dynamite band, whose live performances he used to dig deeper into the Beatles and solo catalogs. He also began the ambitious project of remastering Wings, and solo work. Solo work which is now being dramatically reassessed by critics. Compare a review of “Ram" from 1971 with any from earlier this year when it was rereleased and you'll see what I mean. Perhaps even more striking are more recent reviews of "McCartney II". An album that was bashed when it came out in 1980, but now appears to have been ahead of it's time.
“New", his latest effort, is not the type of record we often see in late career where young hotshot producers are brought in to modernize the artist's sound. It is instead a spirited collaborative effort between a veteran musician still grateful for his gifts, and younger producers and musicians willing to share their talent and expertise in support of some very strong songs. The eagerness of both the artist and the producers to exchange ideas gives the record a freshness and a sense of experimentation. So that, even as it evokes the past, it feels very now. “New" is an exceptional record, certainly one of his many bests. In part because Paul has succeeded at combining the sound and spontaneity of "Electric Arguments" with the tight "chamber pop" of "Memory Almost Full".
Throughout his long solo career McCartney has created many masterful songs. All of his albums contain gems to be discovered. He has never rested on his laurels. His talents as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and performer have always been strong. His musical instincts have always led him to try new things and explore new sounds. Such exploration was after all a hallmark of the Beatles. "And what he's going to do next, I leave entirely to his imagination."
* No, it really is the last word he sings on his New album