It's a little tiresome, after all, this relentless fawning. Seems like every fiscal quarter something else pops up: an anniversary, reissue, Cirque du Soleil production, documentary, or surprising new solo album.
Can't we give it a rest and focus on, say, the Kinks, James Brown or Pulp for a while?
Not while a Beatle's still making records as consistent and well-crafted as "New." With peaks as high as any music he's done this century and nary a valley as low as "Silly Love Songs," "Let 'Em In," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" or his oft-treacly last record of standards, "Kisses on the Bottom," Paul McCartney's latest studio album is pretty damned good — damn it.
Thirteen songs (a dozen plus a hidden track) that move from hard rock to gentle balladry to new wave-inflected pop-rock, McCartney at age 71 balances past and present, memory and the future, distortion and clarity, notions of new and old, on "New."
Tinged with nostalgia, the songwriter has made a record that sounds contemporary but not desperately so, one that suggests his work with the Beatles but not reductively so. That's in large part because of his choice of producers: Paul Epworth (Adele), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), Ethan Johns (Laura Marling, Ray LaMontagne) and Giles Martin (Beatles "Love" remix) bring four sets of young ears and highlight McCartney's many moods.
At one extreme are the rockers, which roll with classic momentum worthy of "Jet" or "Back in the U.S.S.R." and suggest McCartney perhaps held a seance or two to connect with his riskier past. In an earlier, less fragmented landscape, the title track would be as big a hit as anything in Macca's voluminous arsenal. A joyful ode to crushes and the ways in which they rewire life, it features not only a singalong chorus but also, as a coda, a nod to the Beach Boys and classic doo-wop.
"Alligator" delivers background harpsichord and a guitar line worthy of "Day Tripper," with the singer expressing a desire for "someone who can save me when I come home from the zoo/ I need somebody who's a sweet communicator I can give my alligator to."
A sneaky synthetic rhythm drives "Road," a song rich with mesmerizing landscapes of twinkles, strums, bass and harmony. "Queenie Eye" rolls with piano-bouncy momentum suggesting "Lady Madonna," with elaborate arrangements. Produced by Epworth, the song offers structural adventure worthy of "Band on the Run," weird in that uniquely McCartneyian way.
At the other end of the spectrum are the softer ballads on "New." "Early Days," produced by Johns, to me suggests another Beatle's work, at least musically: George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." With a delicate minor-key strum, McCartney sings of flipping through records, "hair slicked back with Vaseline like the pictures on the wall of the local record shop," discovering rock 'n' roll with John Lennon by "hearing noises we were destined to remember."
McCartney's weakness has long been a certain cloyingness, a sense that he's telegraphing positivity. He's an optimist, which can be annoying for us cynics not either melodic geniuses or worth hundreds of millions of dollars. His sing-song phrasing too can get a bit tiresome; "On My Way to Work" is set in his youth while riding a "big green bus" and looking at a nudie mag and features some pretty rocky wording but offers instantly hummable melodic beauty.
Cynicism, though, is no match for an inspired McCartney. "Looking at Her," a midtempo ballad about the power and perils of beauty, lands in that sweet spot between the personal and universal that typifies the composer's best songs.
And given his body of work, that's saying something.
(MPL/Concord Music Group)
Three stars out of four