Goddess in the Doorway
US release date: 20 November 2001
by David Zahl
Paul McCartney, Driving Rain
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Beatles vs. Stones, 2002
When Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger started out, rock ‘n’ roll was all blood and guts, as much an attitude as a style of music. But since its beginnings — and in part because of them — the genre has expanded to a point where boundaries and labels have little, if any, significance. These days, rock ‘n’ roll has to do with expression, pure and only sometimes simple. It revolves around experience as well as inexperience, around ideas as well as feelings, words as well as music.
Those who subscribe to older and stricter definitions of rock ‘n’ roll insist that aging rock stars betray themselves, their legacy, and their fans by continuing to perform. They have a point; all that separates reverence for the past from nostalgia is the thin veil of sincerity. But others see it differently: as long as an artist has something to express, they should be free to do so. In fact, old age may even represent rock’s final frontier.
The idea of Paul McCartney is not difficult to reconcile with old age. In fact, it’s almost too easy. Even before “When I’m 64”, his image contained an aspect of hokey-ness. The idea of an elderly Mick Jagger, on the other hand, is different story. His band wrote the soundtrack to a 20-year party, and the sound of his voice evokes sex and drugs. But as the Stones have become the first real rock ‘n’ roll institution, Jagger has become more of a persona than a person. He stands a better chance of being allowed to age gracefully as a solo artist.
To expect musical breakthroughs from McCartney or Jagger may, at this point, be a futile pursuit. Their respective Beatle- and Stonsy-ness flows through their veins. That said, both McCartney’s Driving Rain and Jagger’s Goddess in the Doorway — released within a week of each other in November — have something fresh to offer. McCartney almost follows through on the promise of Run Devil Run, while Mick, it turns out, has something important to say.
Driving Rain begins with “Lonely Road”, a cautious song that deals clumsily yet effectively with grief: “don’t want to let you take me down/ don’t want to get hurt, second time around/ don’t want to walk that lonely road again.” The song introduces the expertly messy sound of McCartney’s new band, as well as McCartney’s renewed interest in bass-playing. “From a Lover to a Friend” ranks as McCartney’s single best recording in years. Strange tempo shifts enhance a legitimately touching melody, and McCartney sings without any of his trademark vocal shtick. In fact, the song finds McCartney at his most emotionally convincing, boasting the album’s best lyrics: “from a lover to a friend/ take your own advice/ let me love again”. “She’s Given Up Talking” comes next, a droning number with outstanding bass-playing and a slightly psychedelic feel. The inspired roughness of David Kahne’s production breathes life into a song that might have otherwise sounded tired. Unfortunately, the opening trilogy sets a standard that the remainder of the album has trouble living up to.
But there are some clear highlights. “Magic”, an acoustic account of Paul and Linda’s first meeting, benefits greatly from the back-to-basics production. Light, bouncy, and incredibly catchy, it is the sort of song that would have been a highlight on any number of McCartney solo albums. The up-tempo “About You” explores depression with surprising conviction, as the band turns in a charmingly sloppy performance over McCartney’s unaffected vocals. “Heather”, an unexpected highlight, is a mostly instrumental ode to his new wife. It finds him revisiting perhaps one of his more embarrassing idioms: the art-rock instrumental. A more down-to-earth “Rockestra” may not be a difficult accomplishment, but it is an accomplishment, nonetheless. The extended “Rinse the Raindrops” rocks out with plenty of tenacity but few hooks.
But that’s only half the story. Sixteen songs long, Driving Rain suffers from too much filler, ranging from the bland (“I Do”) to the unbearable (“Spinning on an Axis”). The two songs co-written with son James McCartney flop. By the time the platitudinous mumbo-jumbo of “Freedom” rolls around, the triteness has nearly suffocated the album’s best moments. With the exception of “From a Lover to a Friend”, Driving Rain gives the listener little to chew on. Invigorated as this set of ditties may be, the record is mainly worth listening to for McCartney’s superb bass-playing. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Driving Rain might be how — given all that the man has recently been through — detached from aging and grief and mortality it lies. How much longer McCartney can get away with dodging life’s bigger issues remains to be seen.
Goddess in the Doorway operates according to a completely different set of rules. By far the most personal record Jagger has ever released, it deals explicitly with success, divorce, aging, and, most surprisingly, God. His obsession with staying relevant has not vanished, but — unlike on the last few Stones records — it rarely threatens to engulf him. Jagger achieves another kind of relevance on Goddess, the type that comes from acknowledging weakness and need.
Jagger doesn’t waste any time getting down business. By the end of the first song, “Visions of Paradise”, he has rejected — in no uncertain terms — worldly pleasure and material success as a workable “vision of paradise”. In doing so, Jagger’s also rejecting the hedonistic image that he’s painstakingly developed over his career. But powerful as it may be, “Visions of Paradise” does not prepare the listener for track number two, “Joy”, a gospel-influenced rave-up that features Pete Townshend’s mighty rhythm guitar. It begins with the atypical line, “And I drove across the desert/ I was in my four-wheel drive/ I was looking for the Buddha/ and I found Jesus Christ”. He proceeds to tell us, “And I look up to the heavens/ and a light is on my face/ I never, never, never/ thought I’d find a state of grace”. The decision to duet with Bono underlines the earnestness of the song. It would appear that Mick Jagger, singer for the World’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band, has discovered something even greater than himself. He has replaced his devil-may-care attitude has with a different one: devil-will-care.
The theme of divinity runs through the rest of the album, most obviously on the driving Lenny Kravitz collaboration, “God Gave Me Everything”. That song represents not only the hardest rocking moment on Goddess, but the most convincing all-out rocker Jagger has sung in years. By borrowing Kravitz’s signature buzz-guitar effect, Jagger manages to sound fresh, without succumbing to trendiness. The same does not hold true for his hip-hop tinged collaboration with Wyclef Jean, “Hideaway” or the Latin-influenced “Lucky Day”. Both songs find Jagger clawing at the inspiration and charm he displays on the more Stonesy fare, such as the divorce-ballad “Don’t Call Me Up”.
Jagger tackles the past and reflects on growing old on the mild roots-rock of “Too Far Gone”. After a somewhat ironic dismissal of nostalgia in the song’s opening line, Mick echoes the estrangement of “Everybody Getting High” with the sentiment “this was once the country/ now it’s out of town/ what was once the tallest tallest spire/ is just a building crumbling down”. More striking is the song’s closing admission: “the world outside is ugly/ it’s bitter and it’s harsh/ we each of us protect ourselves/ we’re hostage to the past/ and it’s too far gone”. But instead of ending on a note of defeat, Jagger finishes with the penitent and hopeful “Brand New Set of Rules”, as much a pledge as a ballad. As Jagger, who turns 59 this July, repeats the album’s final line, “I’ve got to learn”, the unmistakable humility in his voice rings of something altogether new; it rings of wisdom.
Hard-fought experience ties Paul McCartney’s Driving Rain and Mick Jagger’s Goddess in the Doorway together. But more importantly, it distinguishes them from one another. Whereas experience has reinforced the stubbornness of McCartney’s devotion to romantic love, it has humbled Mick Jagger, confronting him with his own frailty, weakness and, ultimately, mortality. As a result, his words carry more weight than McCartney’s, they sit closer to the hub of humanity. In any case, one thing’s for certain: this is no longer just your father’s rock ‘n’ roll.