The tragedy of Paul McCartney is that he didn’t die when he was supposed to. Had he been killed in a car crash in early 1967, as was rumoured to be the case for several years, he would have gone out at the top of his game and rightfully taken his place in the pantheon of cultural heroes who died too young, alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and our own Michael Hutchence and Bon Scott.
Ironically, it was the other two songwriting Beatles who kicked the bucket before they grew old. There were no obscure ‘He Die’ or ‘bare-foot like a corpse’ visual death clues on album covers or mysterious backwards song lyrics to herald John Lennon or George Harrison’s untimely passing; one got smoked by a gun-wielding psycho while the other, having survived a knife-wielding psycho, smoked himself into an early grave.
But McCartney is still with us; forced to maintain his legacy year in and year out. To invert one of the great memes from the 1960s, Paul Is Alive. Very much so. There was the acrimonious divorce from a one-legged gold-digger that dragged itself (the story, not the spouse) across the confessional couches of American TV shows and London tabloids; there was the recent wedding to a beautiful New York socialite, the London celebrations of which this column was privileged to catch an envious glimpse of from the top of a number 46 threading its way through Maida Vale; there was a live concert on Letterman and now… there’s the New album.
Before some pimply sub-editor jumps on that last sentence and removes the capital N to change it to ‘and now… there’s the new album’ can I please say: rack off and keep your grubby mitts away from my grammar. The name of the new album is New. There’s even a song on it called ‘New’. So the new album is indeed the New album. Not as catchy, perhaps, as Band on the Run, nor as quirky as Ram, but at least as far as titles go it has the advantage of being truthful, for the time being at least. Until the next album, which I guess he should call Newer or Next. (That is if there is another album. You never can tell with these Beatles just how long they’ll be around.)
But is New any good? McCartney has teamed up with Bang & Olufsen to promote the album and forthcoming tour, which is a sensible move that means he doesn’t have to risk his own money (he’s only worth around $650 million at the moment) in case nobody buys the album or turns up to see him croak his way through it live on stage.
In an interview on the B&O website McCartney explains why he needed four producers on the new album and how most of the new songs came about, including ‘New’. In one of those extraordinary coincidences that great art is made from, the web page also features the New range of products from B&O.
This two-way process used to be called ‘mutual masturbation’ but is now known as ‘branded content’, and allows McCartney to flog the merits of superior audio equipment while B&O flog him.
McCartney plays all the instruments himself (apart from one drum track) as he did on his two earlier albums McCartney and McCartney II, so really, for consistency sake he should have called this one McCartney III, but presumably the ad guys at B&O couldn’t cope with that. Anyway, back to our key question: is New any good?
Already it’s been labelled the ‘best McCartney album in decades’, which isn’t strictly true. That honour would (for my money) have to go to an obscure instrumental electronica album called Rushes he released anonymously a few years ago under the pseudonym ‘The Fireman’, which is all blips and weird noises and repetitive rhythms but surprisingly addictive listening. (Knowing McCartney’s love of teasing, ego-centric clues, I agonised for ages about how ‘The Fireman’ pointed to his real identity and what Rushes meant as a title — until the, er, penny dropped: ‘the fireman rushes in’ is of course a line from ‘Penny Lane’.)
But New is certainly up there with the best of his work in yonks. The catchy rocker ‘Queenie Eye’ would sit happily on any of the great Wings albums. ‘On My Way to Work’ is a classic ode to the working day with terrific lyrics about a Page 3 girl that remind one of solo tracks like ‘Every Night’ and ‘Another Day’. The song ‘New’ sounds like a pretty outtake from Revolver-era Beatles, with lots of Beach Boys type harmonising (with himself, presumably). ‘Appreciate’ is cool and funky and takes us straight back to McCartney’s brief Michael Jackson-infatuation (before Michael nicked the rights to the Beatles back-catalogue from under Paul’s nose).
But the standout track is ‘Early Days’. Produced, or rather underproduced, by Ethan Johns (son of ‘Let It Be’ producer Glyn) it’s a haunting, heartfelt ballad about protecting his own songwriting legacy, clearly a point of frustration within the McCartney household. We learn (courtesy of B&O) that Johns insisted on using the first, unpolished demo vocals: ‘It’s you, its vulnerable, it sounds true to life,’ he told the perfectionist McCartney.
Reminiscing about wandering around Liverpool with Lennon, dressed in black, guitars slung over their shoulders, McCartney attacks those who profess an intimate knowledge of the creative workings of his most fertile songwriting partnership:
Now everybody seems to have their own opinion
Of who did this and who did that
But as for me I don’t see how they can remember
When they weren’t where it was at
They can’t take it from me, if they tried
I lived through those early days
The album notes also hark back to Liverpool, the Beatles, Brian Epstein and John Lennon. When you’re a living legend, often much of your living is taken up protecting your legend.
McCartney needn’t fret so much. His New stuff may not be quite up there with his old stuff, but it’s still way better than most of his contemporaries. Those that managed to stay alive, that is.
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