When Paul McCartney releases a new album, fans find themselves faced with a conundrum. On the one hand, being a McCartney devotee means that you’ve long since stopped paying attention to what critics have to say about his post-Beatles career. On the other hand, at some level you really want the critics, and the general public, to like him, damn it! You want them to give him his due as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, a creative force whose every album contains at least a handful of tracks (and, often enough, more than a handful) that can stand quite comfortably with his 1963-1970 output, who’s still more than capable of great things. Especially since we know the critical bylines–that Paul too often commits half-baked ideas to tape, that he works better with an editor or collaborator to push him out of his comfort zone, that he’s sometimes content to coast on his undeniable melodic genius–are actually true in a lot of ways.
And so we await each new record with a mixture of elation and trepidation. (After all, a Beatle sets a high standard – nobody likes to be disappointed.) But after listening many, many times to Paul’s latest, the appropriately-titled NEW (2013); after watching it climb to #3 on the Billboard 200 and sneak in at #4 on Rolling Stone’s “Best Albums of 2013” list (trailing only behind critical darlings Kanye West, Daft Punk, and Vampire Weekend); we can set aside trepidation and give in to elation. Because this is a great record, and the world knows it.
What most impresses me about NEW is the musical richness that’s evident throughout the album. “Save Us” opens the record with a potent two-and-a-half-minute burst of rock n’ roll, propelled by a crunchy riff and tight harmonies. The mellotron-draped “Queenie Eye,” with lyrics drawn from a Liverpudlian children’s rhyme and raucous piano drawn straight from The White Album, constitutes a minor masterpiece. The folky “Early Days” may be the album highlight for me, a sweetly emotional yet unsentimental look back at Paul’s teenage years, set against a clean, folky backdrop. But then there’s the title track, which would’ve scaled the charts in 1967 with its bouncy harpsichords and playful horns. In these songs, Paul’s much-lauded mastery of melody is wedded to a meticulous attention to detail that really pays off.
It’s not NEW’s highlights that carry it, however, so much as its consistently high standards of songwriting and production. None of the aforementioned gems occupy quite the same echelon as latter-day classics on Flaming Pie (1997) or Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005), for instance. But the rest of the album is so good, you barely even notice it. Every song is fully realized, brimming with inventive arrangements, impeccable harmonies (even for Paul), and atmospheric variation – witness the difference in tone (though not quality) between the joyous, up-tempo “Turned Out,” the wispily ethereal “Hosanna,” and the industrial, experimental (for Paul) “Appreciate.” Even on “filler” cuts like the humdrum ballad “Looking at Her” and the Ram-like throwaway “Get Me Out of Here,” precise vocal arrangements and electronic breaks keep the proceedings exciting.
Alright, sure, Paul’s propensity for lyrical laziness rears its head now and again – for example, both “Alligator” and “Everybody Out There,” great tunes in their own right, might’ve benefited from revision. But that’s decidedly the exception, not the rule, a question not of salvaging bad songs but rather of improving good ones. And interestingly enough, the critics have taken note: Allmusic’s review of the album calls it “one of the best of McCartney’s latter-day records.” To be fair, the critics seem to have selective amnesia, insofar as they’ve been saying the same about every original album Paul has released since 1997. But this is simply further proof that at 71, Paul McCartney, far from inching his way into retirement, is alive and kicking, still capable of coming up with something NEW.
- Paul McCartney Still Has It (cynthiafunes.wordpress.com)
- Paul McCartney’s Grammy Nod (hamptonspartygirl.wordpress.com)
- How Awesome Would It Be to Be Paul McCartney? (modernrocker.wordpress.com)
- Paul McCartney – Save Us (melodology.wordpress.com)
- Sir Paul, Katy Perry trade songwriting tips (bigstory.ap.org)
- Album Review: Paul McCartney – “New” (2013) (andrewdsweeney.wordpress.com)