Those of a certain age might remember the “Is Paul Dead?” rumor that swirled around the Beatles at the peak of their career. Fans played Beatles tracks backward and carefully examined photographs for “evidence” of Paul McCartney’s supposed demise.
After listening to McCartney’s new quaint little dalliance with the Great American Songbook, “Kisses on the Bottom,” the question that occurred to me was “Is Paul retired?”
“Kisses on the Bottom” features music McCartney used to sing around the piano with his family as a tyke in the 1940s and ‘50s, along with other period pieces selected by the singer and producer Tommy LiPuma, plus two new McCartney songs. The evidence is legion that Sir James Paul McCartney, 69, longtime songwriting powerhouse, may have indeed punched his final time clock.
There’s the gold (retirement?) watch he’s wearing on his left arm in many of the photos within the CD package. His last solo studio album, in 2007, was called “Memory Almost Full” and was followed by what could be considered a retirement party: “Good Evening New York City,” a 2009 two CD/DVD package that featured the veteran reliving the glory years. Another tribute to McCartney on Friday will see him receiving the MusiCares Person of the Year honor for his myriad charitable endeavors.
More explicit confirmation comes via the album’s booklet, in which McCartney explains the process of working with LiPuma and a crack group of players — including Diana Krall and her band, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and the remarkable father-son jazz guitar team of Bucky and John Pizzarelli.
“The players did all the hard work,” says McCartney in a Q&A published in the liner notes, “and I was just in the booth singing. There was one moment when we were having a puzzle over some slight problem, and I said, ‘I don’t mind. I’m in L.A. I’m British. I’m a tourist. I’m in Capitol A Studio, I’m singing on Nat King Cole’s microphone — I’m on holiday.’” Not the words of someone who seems too worried about job security.
The record (the title is a line from the opening track, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”) features songs from the 1930s and 1940s by some of America’s great early 20th century songwriters. It comes dangerously close to breaching the property-line that early retiree Rod Stewart has drawn in his wildly successful, and treacly, series of “Great American Songbook” titles, though McCartney’s song choices are less predictable.
More to the point, like Stewart’s blockbuster series of classics, “Kisses” is perhaps an acknowledgment by an artist that the pop and rock rat race — i.e. the backbreaking work of keeping relevant in an ever-evolving musical landscape — is no longer worth the effort. Thus: It’s time to retire.
Gentle on the ears and soft on the heart, “Kisses” might be of no greater or lesser consequence than an easygoing golf outing among friends or a weekend spent digging a garden near the back fence, but its pleasures, though small and sleepy, can be gratifying. It is a more satisfying listen if treated as a footnote in McCartney’s repertoire, in the best sense of the term: a record to cite when discussing the influences of some of the writer’s more Songbook-referential ditties of his own, like “Martha My Dear,” “Honey Pie” and that part in “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” about “a cup of tea and butter pie.”
Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg and Billy Rose’s classic “It’s Only a Paper Moon” features dueling Pizzarellis on guitars and Krall chiming in on piano, which she does throughout the album. The wonderful “My Valentine,” one of the new McCartney compositions, wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ella Fitzgerald songbook record; and McCartney’s take on “Always,” a song written by Irving Berlin in 1925 as a wedding gift to his wife, is as sweet and supple as a garden-grown blueberry, and is suggestive of McCartney’s composition with the Beatles, “I Will.” Alan Broadbent’s minimal arrangements throughout the record are exquisite.
Like a great chip shot seen only by the rest of your foursome or a fresh new row of daisies sprouting in the spring, its influence is minimal in the scheme of things but not without its own kind of joy. It’s a charming offering realized without the pressures of sales or reputation to worry about, and a reminder that this McCartney guy was once a true force.