Let’s get the good news out of the way first: Paul McCartney’s new album of old standards isn’t quite as disappointing as Rod Stewart’s “Songbook” series.
Kisses on the Bottom, a… well… cheeky title taken from the lyric of the collection’s opening number, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, originally popularized by Fats Waller and possibly a song which made the young McCartney giggle like a loon when he was a wee lad in Liverpool.
To his credit and sometimes also to his detriment, McCartney has been unafraid in the past of publicly flogging his personal playlists. Never mind that the Beatles often covered rock ‘n’ roll, soul and show tunes alike, but Macca’s solo canon includes two albums of raucous versions of tunes that supposedly made him put grease in his hair and pick up a guitar as a teenager. Here, McCartney is in crooner mode, backed by Diana Krall and her capable band and sticking almost exclusively to the microphone, pictured in the album’s artwork as one of those old-timey models that hangs upside-down and is encircled by a fancy bit of metal wire and was probably caked with Dean Martin’s booze breath.
McCartney has often been tagged as a purveyor of schmaltz, a reputation that he’s at least partly responsible for earning with numbers like “My Love” and “Ebony and Ivory”, the latter a duet with Stevie Wonder so corny it makes Macca’s “Pipes of Peace” seem like a work of great insight and importance by comparison. Wonder is here as well on “Only Our Hearts”, one of just two McCartney originals on the album; the Motown legend doesn’t sing, but instead plays a harmonica solo so uncharacteristically abrasive, I almost used it to file my nails.
Elsewhere, the music is so inoffensive and gently wrought that it’s difficult to generate any enthusiasm in either direction. It proved challenging to accentuate the positive in the cover of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, because it sounds as though it was hastily performed to test the mics and was accidentally included in the final mix. “My Friend the Milkman” has McCartney doing a probably-unintentional Carol Channing impersonation and is possibly even weirder than that looks in print.
It’s hard to completely knock Kisses on the Bottom because McCartney is in love and as history will tell us, McCartney in love makes for a flowery broth. Indeed, some of the songs themselves are quite good. “My Valentine”, a McCartney original featuring tasteful guitar from Eric Clapton, is one of the album’s genuinely captivating tunes. “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” is also quite good, a lush orchestral number arranged by Johnny Mandel with a breathy McCartney vocal that’s just about as perfect as it’s likely to get here.
McCartney is clearly enthusiastic for the project, wearing the velvet lapels and smoky ambience with a natural comfort. And maybe he saw what Stewart’s done over the past decade-plus and thought he might as well take a crack at it and move a few units in the process. If there’s even a whisper of commercial ambition here, it’s at least a toned-down version. The guest stars are few — Wonder and Clapton, but most importantly Krall — and their contributions seem less a sales gimmick than they could. Yes, the intentions seem mostly pure, and if buoyed by love of the music and of how it expresses McCartney’s own fondness for romance, and if that all sounds way too saccharine sweet for your tastes, it probably is.
As musical interpretations of romance go, Kisses on the Bottom may only get you about halfway there, flowers in hand wondering whether a second date is on the cards, unsure if that’s even what you want at all.