You think you really know your friends — and then you admit that McCartney’s solo output is your favorite of any Beatle.
Last Thanksgiving, I found myself defending Macca’s prickly ouvre to a group of pals drunk on turkey and holiday cheer. Their sated bellies suddenly turned in anguish: was I really championing the author of silly love songs over Lennon’s anti-authoritarian individualism and Harrison’s muted metaphysics? For better or worse, yes. I saluted Wings, propped up Pipes of Peace, canonized “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, even back-peddled and hailed the precious “She’s Leaving Home”. I stuck up for everything Paul had touched, sans the operatic experiments (which, thankfully, were overlooked by all), merely to prove a stubborn point: melody and song structure conquer all. For one friend in particular, it wasn’t so cut-and-dry: “If I’m relying on solo Beatles for a road trip,” he said, “I’ll listen to Paul during the morning hours. He’s wake-up material. But I’ll need John to get me through the night.”
Latter-day McCartney has become tougher and tougher to defend. Despite being levied with tags prematurely declaring a “return to form”, recent records like Driving Rain and Flaming Pie have been bogged down by Macca’s nauseatingly sentimental tendencies — tendencies that have existed since the early days (“Till There Was You” — ugh!) but have really come to define his halfhearted output as of late. These days, when not embarking on fanciful flights of frivolity, he’s penning pitiful quasi-political clunkers like “Freedom”, songs that do serious structural damage to a pop legacy once thought to be unquestionable.
And still, there’s life left in old dogs. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is a big score for those who have remained faithful to McCartney throughout the last few decades; it is far and away the most solid record he’s delivered since the mid-’70s. His decision to make the album with producer Nigel Godrich, known for his work with Radiohead, Air, and Beck, is just as significant as it looks on paper. In addition to making Chaos and Creation one of the best-sounding albums of McCartney’s solo career (all those pianos striking like concrete clogs and paper-thin acoustic guitars), Godrich convinced McCartney to once again handle all instrumental duties (a few cameos from musicians like Jason Falkner and Joey Waronker notwithstanding) and nixed any song loaded with schmaltzy indulgences. The result is a record that carries an emotional heft and, often, a subversive foundation. Even when a song’s subject matter is that of typical McCartney sentimentality (issuing gratitude in “How Kind of You”, reinforcing adversity-toppling self-esteem in “Too Much Rain”), it’s arranged in swirls of doubt and mystery: minor chords drop in unexpectedly; strikingly mature string arrangements frost the glass panes; and, in the case of a song like “Riding to Vanity Fair”, a hazy mix of orchestra and glockenspiel fashions a dreamlike atmosphere where regret can hang heavy in the gleaming present.
After opening with the rousing “Fine Line”, Chaos and Creation settles into an autumnal mode, devoid of any self-consciousness or age-appropriate importance that some “twilight records” can command. The thrills aren’t delivered at a breakneck pace, but rather arrived at patiently: the way the strings grudgingly heave in tandem with the sober lines of “At the Mercy”; how the full band entrance in “Friends to Go” plummets the song into a murky insecurity. While McCartney remains lyrically reflective (innocent but not naïve, reassuringly clichéd but not groan-inducing), he discovers that he can, once again, edge into experimentalism without losing his accessibility. In “How Kind of You”, twinkling, droning loops revolve around the suspended melody; despite the bass’ momentous flux, the song is marvelously aloof. “How kind of you to think of me/ When I was out of sorts,” he sings, but the arrangement suggests that he hasn’t fully collected himself. “English Tea” marries silliness with sophistication, its whimsical recorders rubbing elbows with elegant strings. The song’s playfully regal melody recalls Beatle acolytes like Andy Partridge; in fact, the entire record evokes the circular lineage of pop music. In a sense, McCartney is reclaiming the sensibilities he has passed down the line, the teacher learning from his students, reshaping the memorable so it can be habitual once more.
If “English Tea” summons the capricious nature of The Beatles, then the acoustic guitar ballad “Jenny Wren” aims to be that album’s equal. The record’s most affecting and gorgeous song, “Jenny Wren” is an example of an uncommonly inspired McCartney, the songwriter who doesn’t think twice about sending the melody up darkened alleys of minor chords when the lyric grows increasingly bleak: “How we spend our days/ Casting love aside/ Losing sight of life day by day.” Throw in a breathy duduk solo and it’s clear: regardless of whether he now requires provocation (on second thought, he probably always has), McCartney can still cut deep when given the right opportunity. With Godrich’s help, Macca has tossed the map aside, denied the easy way out, and ceased resting his studio efforts on an imposing pin-up of his own legend. “There is a fine line/ Between recklessness and courage,” McCartney confidently sings on Chaos and Creation‘s opening track, and here, finally, it seems he’s struck the delicate balance, teetering ever-so-slightly towards the latter.