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Paul McCartney: An Auteur

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Friday, Jun 17, 2011
Paul McCartney's effortless musical mastery (with no suffering artist gimmick) robs him of the serious consideration he deserves. But like literature and film's greatest auteurs, he will eventually undergo the Hitchcock / Shakespeare transformation from popular entertainer to century-defining artist.

In the year 2300, alien inhabitants will revere Paul McCartney in the same way Mozart and Beethoven are today. Paul McCartney is an artist of the first rank. The notion that he is talented yet slight (particularly in regards to his solo years) simply doesn’t exist except through the lens of Rolling Stone‘s post-Beatles breakup John Lennon worship. McCartney’s effortless mastery (with no suffering artist gimmick) robs him of the serious consideration he deserves.

Paul McCartney just isn’t hip. This week’s reviews of McCartney and McCartney II by Pitchfork are steeped in irony. The site gives the album that molded the entire sound of Pitchfork-branded indie of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s a 7.9; while a record that eclipses the presently hyped synthpop-chillwave fare received a 7.2. McCartney doesn’t get much love from the Rolling Stone old boys club either. An album like Ram is far better than the likes of the usual “top 10 album” mainstays like OK Computer and London Calling. Furthermore, Ram is the only solo Beatles album that maintains the impeccable standard of the ‘65-‘69 Beatles albums, a run that was largely orchestrated by McCartney. Argue whether Lennon or McCartney wrote better songs during this period if you must, but make no mistake: McCartney was the visionary behind every Beatles album starting with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.
McCartney’s solo run alone would rank him among the great innovators of 20th century popular music. McCartney (1970) is the album indie popsters make in their dreams. Here, McCartney, the iconoclast, had the effrontery to ditch Abbey Road production in favor of ushering in a lo-fi sound. Band on the Run found him putting out a Number One smash in his sleep. McCartney II is McCartney’s avant-garde masterpiece. Pitchfork claims “Coming Up” could have been a Talking Heads song, which is a stretch considering Talking Heads never wrote a song as good. Tug of War is no slouch, while Flaming Pie is his late period classic.

Even at his worst, McCartney is always interesting. If the Beach Boys can get away with half dud/half gem albums, why can’t McCartney? Wild Life is saved by “Some People Never Know” and “Tomorrow”; Venus and Mars by “Venus and Mars”, “Magneto and Titanium Man”, and one of the highest achievements of 20th century popular music, “Listen to What the Man Said”; Speed of Sound by “She’s My Baby” and “Beware My Love”; and so on. The point being, while many McCartney albums may not hold up to the perfection of Ram or the Beatles LPs, each one has at least a reminder of that perfection. This supports my notion of some form of musical auteur theory, in the sense that a visionary’s entire oeuvre must be examined in a serious light. This is something I hope to explore in future pieces, but to give it to you simple: François Truffaut asserted that the worst of Jean Renoir’s movies would always be more interesting than the best of the movies of Jean Delannoy. Well, I assert that the worst of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen will always be more interesting than the best of Tom Petty, James Taylor, or Eric Clapton. Like literature and film’s greatest auteurs, McCartney will undergo the Hitchcock/Shakespeare transformation from popular entertainer to century-defining artist. Ram on.

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