Sir Paul takes a step back in time, but not to the era you might think.
Paul McCartney’s new album, appropriately (for now) titled New, is the former Beatle’s first album of all new songs since Memory Almost Full (2007). Later McCartney may be somewhat difficult to review or even listen to objectively, especially now that we have hit the 51-year mark since the Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do” (primarily written by McCartney, with input from John Lennon) was released. The Knighted Beatle has accomplished so much in his 71 years and has created so much incredible music (helping to change the very soundscape of rock ‘n’ roll along the way) that it’s easy to listen to New or, really, any post-Beatles output and casually label said output as “not his best work”.
The obvious reaction to such a statement would go something like “Well, DUH!” Of course this isn’t Sir Paul’s best work. Not every artist can co-create (much less replicate) such masterpieces as “The Abbey Road Suite”, Let it Be or The Beatles (better known as The White Album). However, how many artists can claim to have made so much great music (from Wings through his now 16 solo albums) since being one of the main creative forces of one of the best and most influential bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll?
There may be a tendency and even an expectation for artists with such history to make every album and single a throwback to their heyday. McCartney has never been one to live in his own past, even if he does gleefully visit the halcyon days from time to time. That said, New is not an album that sounds like the rock ‘n’ roll norms of 2013, nor is New a continuation of McCartney’s distorted late 2012 collaboration with the surviving members of Nirvana. New does take a TARDIS trip back in time, but rarely to the sound of the Beatles or Wings. Instead, New feels like a progressive ‘80s album with the distorted synthesizers and “New Wave” sounds, eschewing the neon bubblegum of the day (in spite of the imagery on the album cover) and all in support of the voice that is unmistakably McCartney’s after all this time.
Owing, in part, to the four producers on New, there is no one feeling or “era” that can bring the entire record together, however this never quite feels like 2013 (and that’s a compliment). McCartney’s original intent was to choose one of his four favorite producers out of Giles Martin, Paul Epworth, Ethan Johns and Mark Ronson. Apparently the man couldn’t decide, because all four produce their share of the album with Martin serving as executive producer.
The Ronson-produced title track is the closest to a Beatles-sounding song on the record. Here McCartney consistently advises the subject and listeners “Don’t look at me” for answers about love. This, coming from the man who once gave us “Silly Love Songs”, shows the markedly different approach to the subject that has come with the seasons. In that “New” was released as the opening single for its namesake album, the nostalgic love song of confused possibilities might be what fans are expecting from the rest of the album. This isn’t exactly the case.
True, “Early Days” is another nostalgic track that clearly tells the story of the pre-Beatles Lennon and McCartney working to create their sound and the band that would change the world. Has this been done before? This could have been another pop-oriented, fun song like George Harrison’s 1987 Beatles remembrance “When we was Fab”, but under Johns’ production “Early Days” is a slow and low acoustic blues song filled with both the heartache of loss and the warm memories of good (if not necessarily “easy”) times with a dear friend.
These two songs serve as the very center of the album but aren’t indicative of the album on the whole. The opening track “Save Us” is a driving rock song that would have sounded at home on the soundtrack to Streets of Fire (1984). Epworth throws in almost operatic harmonies on the chorus and plenty of “Whoa-oh” style backing vocals into this catchy and consistent song. This is immediately followed by another Ronson-produced track called “Alligator”, which begins with a synthesized flute line that prepares the listener for the often whimsical lyrics like “I want 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.” However, when the song reaches its break, the whimsy falls away for a pleading Paul asking either one specific person or the universe “Could you be that person for me?” and we are shown the hidden sorrow behind this seemingly happy tune.
This deceptively melancholy mood continues onto the next track “On My Way to Work”, the first produced by Giles Martin. This third song starts as a straightforward rock song detailing of the mundane occurrences transpiring around the speaker of the song (buying a magazine, riding a bus, clocking in for a shift), all under a light guitar and popping drum line. However, after each lethargic litany, Martin shifts the song into electronic territory for a mood shifting guitar lead that recedes in time for Paul’s voice to give us the point of the song. “But all the time, I thought of you. How far away the future seems! How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true?” And without warning, we’re back into the same rhythm and listing of the day’s unremarkable events before we’re hit again with “But all the time, I thought of you. How would you know that I was there? How could a soul search everywhere without knowing what to do?”
Breaking the mood between “On my Way to Work” and “Early Days” is the fast-paced and fun “Queenie Eye”, as produced by Epworth. The song starts off with a sweet string introduction, but quickly drives forward with a multilayered rock track that evokes memories of the best of McCartney’s solo career. When considering Paul’s ‘80s output, the song just after “New” would also fit in perfectly. “Appreciate” is a minimalist, electronic rock song with synthesized drums and a falsetto McCartney backed by his own low-range vocals. Like most of the songs on New, the Martin-produced “Appreciate” is at its best in the breaks when Paul rapid-fires his lyrics over distorted guitar leads and strumming. The song is good on its own, but fails to sustain its own energy until the bluesy guitar work leads the listener through the last movements of the song to its finale.
The straightforward rock returns on “Everybody Out There”, which features exciting guitar leads but overly simplistic and poppy lyrics seemingly designed to be catchy and radio friendly. The song is optimistic and encourages the listener to “do some good before you say goodbye”, but feels like an obvious attempt by McCartney and Martin to craft a hit. However, the song ultimately feels a bit more like filler material. The Johns-produced “Hosanna” is lyrically as simple as “Everybody Out There”, but exists in a much sadder and slower tone range. The minimalist song is packed with pretty good sounds but remarkably obvious rhymes and repetitive lyrics.
“I Can Bet” is another catchy rock song that would sound at home in the ‘80s, but is even more lyrically repetitive than the previous songs. The song is, in essence, the same lyrics repeated several times with changing music underneath them, thanks to the production of Martin. However, the sameness ceases as the song ends with a light but trippy psychedelic musical break worthy of a Beatles or Pink Floyd song. This perfectly blends into “Looking at Her”, which feels like a continuation of the slow paced ballad-like “Appreciate” and “Hosanna”, but ups the ante of the ‘80s approach with a dominant, almost-techno synthesizer that takes over the song at interesting times, signaling the change in lyrical tone.
The (ostensible) final track, “Road”, was produced by Epworth and is one of the best and most complex songs on the entire album. The haphazard genre shifts from acoustic rock to electronic are gone in favor of one solid and symphonic collection of layers that produce one truly excellent sound. “Road” is the one track that demands to be listened to at high volume so that the listener can catch the underlying instrumentation that almost forms a second song that serves as the backing and basis for “Road”. McCartney’s lyrics are introspective and intelligently written and Epworth perfectly accompanies the mood of the song with each musical movement, of which there are many. If you download only one song from New, make it “Road” and crank it up high.
“Road” would have served as the perfect closer for New, but Martin includes a hidden track that he produced at the end of “Road”. This piano-based clincher, called “Scared”, proves to be a simpler, but still impressive echo of “Road”. While “Scared” doesn’t sound like any one song from the past, Beatles fans can easily picture the bearded Paul from Let it Be sitting behind his piano and singing into the microphone with his sincere eyes as he says “I’m trying to let you know how much you mean to me… now.”
“Scared” may not be the orchestral powerhouse that “Road” is and while the use of this as a clincher might not leave the listener with the same awed impact that “Road” provides, “Scared” leaves the listener with the nostalgic feeling that leads to repeat listens to the album. This, in turn, is also an echo of classic McCartney. As “The Abbey Road Suite” crashed to a close with the climactic “The End”, the previously-excised “Her Majesty”, a short and sweet acoustic guitar track from Paul himself was added as an early (albeit unintentional) example of a hidden track.
New is no Abbey Road, but it is a remarkable album from the 71-year-old version of the man who has brought us decades of great rock ‘n’ roll songs. Are Sir Paul McCartney’s greatest achievements already decades old? Sure, but if anybody out there were to ask “What has he done lately?” New is one great and truly listenable answer to that question.