IV. Chaos And Creation In The Backyard

Paul McCartney

It’s been four years and Paul McCartney is back with Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. Produced with Nigel Godrich, the man behind the board for Radiohead’s most daring work and Beck’s moody masterpiece Sea Change the new album is surprisingly appealing, given how disappointing the last one was. Does anyone even remember the embarrassing anthem that was “Freedom” or the other half-baked excuses for songs on the directionless Driving Rain? Probably not. Even us die-hards could barely get with what was going on there. But something has changed. Our Macca seems to know he’s treading water, continuing to try the patience of the faithful who keep shelling out their ducats for each new platter, no matter how lackluster it may be, and even more for the “BeatleMania” show he keeps tramping around the continents. When your sold-out arena tour is 70 percent songs that were written and recorded four decades ago, something has to go off in your head. Like maybe trying to write some good new songs.

The last good McCartney album was 1997’s Flaming Pie and before that, 1989’s almost-return-to-form Flowers In The Dirt, the best songs of which were written with Elvis Costello, and which remain the best songs he’s released since his last great album, 1982’s Tug Of War. It has not been easy staying the course with The Cute One, given how long it is between quality offerings and the fact that both George and Ringo have made better records since 1985 than he has, but once a Macca fan, always a Macca fan. Every so often, I must remind myself this is the man responsible for “Hey Jude,” “For No One,” and side two of Abbey Road, not to mention “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” and “Blackbird.” I wonder if he ever reminds himself. He should regularly, and not emerge from his writing study until he’s got an album’s worth of tunes that at least get him into the same hallowed ballpark, be it standing at home plate, sitting on the bench, or ordering a hot dog in the stands. At this point, I’d take anything remotely close. Granted, not every song can be a “Yesterday” or a “She’s Leaving Home,” but every song can and should have some kind of charm and craft to it, a good melody, a clever turn of phrase, a committed vocal performance. Too many of Macca’s records are rife with just the opposite: Banal, tuneless tripe trying to adhere to the times, following instead of leading, unlike what he did in the Sixties with The Beatles, and even for most of the Seventies with Wings. At least then, you got an undeniable hit like “Band On The Run” or “With A Little Luck.” Nowadays, you don’t even get one of those. I don’t think any other major artist has ever rusted so badly. Paul Simon still makes good records. He never stopped. And Dylan, God bless him, seems more inspired than ever. Those last two Who songs (“Real Good Looking Boy” and “Old Red Wine”) rocked. And Joni Mitchell doesn’t put out an album unless she has a LOT to say. So where does that leave McCartney? With something to prove as ever. (As if he needs to prove anything, given the heights of his amazing career.) But the old charmer has always been a competitor and he still wants to be recognized as legitimate, so it’s time to enlist a current producer who’s track record is as enviable as any at the moment, especially in England, given that Radiohead are the closest thing to Revolver there is right now, and go about the task of saying something, or anything. Making a statement, offering art of subtlety and quiet grace, not pandering or seeming adrift…he wants to be taken seriously. And with Chaos And Creation, it’s a little easier to do just that.

There are no out of the box smashes here. No radio song of any kind. Even the appealing first single “Fine Line” doesn’t resemble a hit in any way. But it doesn’t stink. And it has something to say. It’s even moving at points. So that’s encouraging. It sounds cool too, like Nigel Godrich produced it. It must be noted that Paul’s voice, once a thing of immense beauty, power and range, is not in the best of shape, what with all that touring and endless pot-smoking he’s done. How could we expect the old throat to hold up after all these years of activity? What is left is a low-key, smoky charm, similar to Joni Mitchell, although it is initially hard to accept, given how all-encompassing and familiar it once was. So it takes some getting used to, although half way through the album, it starts to register. An improvement has been made in the overall vocal approach as well; perhaps out of necessity, Macca’s singing is understated, conveying a subtlety that gains in charm as the record progresses. There’s none of that ‘Vegas Affect’ that came cropping up on the last several albums and tours where he would bend up to every note, sounding more like some bad lounge singer than the man who cracked the world open belting out “Oh! Darling” and “Helter Skelter.”

Even more endearing is the modesty of the production and arrangements, which serves the material well. This is a quiet shelf of tiny pop songs, English miniatures by a wizened old craftsman who has seen it all and is taking time out to comment softly on where he is today. Like Beck’s Sea Change, it can be viewed better as one long piece, each individual track morphing into the next, creating a semblance of picture and mood instead of a mozaic of many colors. Also like Sea Change, the general feeling is one of melancholy, not McCartney’s usual fare, and the result is more emotionally satisfying than usual. Macca’s sensibilities always play well in blue, whether it’s McCartney’s “Junk,” Tug Of War’s “Here Today,” or even “Somedays” from Flaming Pie. Somehow all that mushy sentimentality he’s simultaneously adored and ridiculed for seems to dissolve when he’s sad into a more believable feeling. It’s there in the lyrics, which while not approaching the power of an Elvis Costello, a Joni Mitchell or a Pete Townshend, seem candid and truthful. There is a sense of economy that has always served him best. No tired clichés, just clever enough, not trying for something they aren’t. And that goes double for the singing; an almost emotionless delivery that informed his best work from 1966-'68. Listen to “Eleanor Rigby,” “For No One,” or “Mother Nature’s Son” and you’ll hear it. “Jenny Wren,” “Too Much Rain,” and the very fine “Riding To Vanity Fair” all have a touch of the old master coming through them, and it’s a quiet pleasure, even with all the wear and tear in his voice. Maybe it’s the influence of Nigel Godrich, maybe Macca just relaxing a bit, letting the melodies carry what’s left of his voice instead of the other way around. There is the impression he’s not trying to sell anything here. He’s just singing some songs. And it works.

This is a decidedly English album, much in line with the aforementioned Revolver and the best of Tug of War and Flaming Pie. There is an ease to the acoustic guitar, piano and string arrangements that conjures both English countryside and cobblestone, images of rolling hills and backyard patios set somewhere in the past, maybe England 1950 or even 1900. It has that ‘out of time’ feeling, like looking at old black and white photographs in a family album taken out of a drawer on a Sunday. Maybe this is the reason McCartney chose Godrich, or this is what came out of working with him. Either way, there is an unassuming charm here, a vulnerability and lack of pretense that allows the music to happen naturally, dismantling expectation. It works in his favor like few records he has made in the past thirty-five years.

Are there any classics on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard? Anything that will transcend its moment like “Yesterday,” “Blackbird,” “Good Day Sunshine,” or “Golden Slumbers?” Are there any hit singles that will storm the airwaves like “Listen To What The Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs” or “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey?” No. Not by a long shot. Those halcyon days are long ago for Paul McCartney (and the world, for that matter.) But this humble, picaresque postcard of English life and love is surely not a bad place to be at the moment, and gives credence to the possibility that we have not heard the last of one of the last of the truly great ones. Here’s to the next one, and to many more to come.


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