Renaissance Man: Former Beatle’s solo outing proves he’s still making music that matters
With relatively little fanfare, Paul McCartney is in the middle of a career renaissance.
Ever since 1997’s Flaming Pie
, he’s enjoyed a creatively fruitful period reminiscent of his earliest solo outings (1970’s McCartney
, 1971’s Ram
). Fittingly, on Chaos and Creation In the Backyard
, he revisits the notion of the true solo album, playing most of the instruments himself, as he did on McCartney
(and the underrated McCartney II
). For some artists, a back-to-basics approach might signal a retreat from ambition, but McCartney has always excelled in this mode.
The former Beatle’s meeting with acclaimed producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) results in another surprisingly good album, albeit one in which the eternally young-hearted McCartney sounds occasionally winded. It’s not that the songs are tired: from the gray “Riding to Vanity Fair” to the poignant acoustic ballad “Jenny Wren,” most of Chaos and Creation finds him in strong form. Rather, he shows his age as a singer, particularly on up-tempo pieces like the single “Fine Line.”
Though Godrich (suggested by no less an authority than Sir George Martin) has done a good job choosing a tracklist that emphasizes the more solemn, introverted aspects of McCartney’s songwriting, one can’t help but miss the days when his buoyancy sounded less strained.
Of course, his recent ballads have rarely sounded as lovely. “Follow Me,” a spiritual thank you written in McCartney’s subtly broad fashion so as to apply to just about anyone, is simple and heartfelt. The tasteful string accompaniment feels reminiscent of John Lennon’s backing for “Imagine,” and is one of many songs that evokes McCartney’s past. Likewise, “Friends to Go” might’ve sounded at home on George Harrison’s final album, replete with sly electric-guitar asides and lightly cynical lines like, “someone else can worry about me, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own.” McCartney pulls off the homage brilliantly, which is more than can be said of “English Tea,” a shamelessly twee piece of chamber pop that sounds more than a bit cheeky coming from the man who wrote the book on this kind of thing (“For No One,” “Fool On the Hill”).
The best moments occur when McCartney moves beyond his storied past, as on the tribute to his wife Heather Mills (“How Kind of You”) or the aforementioned “Jenny Wren.” The former tune is greatly assisted by Godrich’s masterly atmospheric arrangement, accompanying the vocal at first with only harmonium and piano, gradually bringing in more instruments and building emotional momentum in the process. When McCartney sings, “I thought my time was up,” it’s hard to disbelieve him. On the closing ballad “Anyway,” he sings, “If we could be closer longer, that would help me so much / We could cure each other’s sorrow, won’t you please, please, please get in touch,” making good on his promise from Abbey Road (“and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”), but from the perspective of a man who’s lived long enough to ask for help in earnest.