Much as I liked NEW the, er, new Paul McCartney album of five years ago, his last studio solo album for a time, it hasn’t aged particularly well. Too many cooks spoiled that broth. But at least it showed the restless creative spirit that is Sir Paul McCartney, former Beatle, chief commander of Wings; man with absolutely nothing left to prove in popular music, endless accolades and resources behind him too.
Well, Egypt Station, the brand new album – his first after a five year gap that has seen his biggest rave reviews or the Beatles Jukebox live shows from his excellent touring band – is another reminder that Sir Macca is still curious, still so thoroughly invested and interested in music; competing only with himself.
And it is his best effort since 2005’s Chaos And Creation in The Backyard. As with that album it shows that McCartney is his own best chief collaborator; that he’s happiest with time in the studio to explore, to tinker and create and that his effortless gift for crafting exquisite pop melodies is enhanced by his own super, exploratory skills as melodic bass player and empathetic-for-the-song drummer.
Egypt Station start super-strong. I Don’t Know might be his best bit of pop songcraft since No More Lonely Nights was dashed out at the 11th hour in an attempt to save the novelty-project film Give My Regards To Broad Street. (It didn’t quite work – but the song always has). It’s a reminder of the classiness that drives his best Beatles and Wings balladry and right off the bat we have another gorgeous McCartney bassline; the kind no one else could think up and execute in his way.
And then Come On To Me, the other opening single, hits all marks as the more upbeat rocker, a reminder more of Wings and one of the first examples of how good Sir Paul is at ripping himself off, at hinting, borrowing, re-stitching. If Chaos’ Jenny Wren saw the same playing approach as Blackbird’s writing to produce a new song, then Come On To Me is the guitar riff and driving horns of many a Wings song, in particular it’s the sound of Old Siam Sir rewritten 40 years on.
Happy With You is the first slight wobble. A charming acoustic piece, if not quite at the Jenny Wren level, but old man Macca’s ode to how happy he is now has nothing in support of the supple guitar line to cover the rudimentary rhymes and frankly naff sentiment and delivery of this paean to his third wife.
It’s fine. Just not great.
We’re back on track with Who Cares though, another chugging-guitar rocker – a lot of this album gives reminders of McCartney-as-the-world’s-best-one-man-band and there’s just something to this song. He’s written this type of ditty over and again – and the mediocre versions filled albums like Off The Ground, Driving Rain and Memory Almost Full but the great versions are all over his best experimental solo albums (McCartney, Ram, Band on The Run, McCartney II and Chaos) and this is (nearly) good enough to sit with anything strong from that crew.
Fuh You is Paul’s big mis-step on this record. A John Lennon-inspired pun that’s been chained to a catchy-af/atrocious modern-pop song produced by Ryan Tedder, one of those write-songs-by-committee guys (his name is all over recent pop songs – including Beyonce’s Halo) and this reminds us of when McCartney was paired with Kanye West. It has no real place on the album. Worse than that, it’s so damn catchy I’m almost at the singing-along stage.
There are some slight and nearly-throwaway songs where Paul doesn’t do anything wrong but doesn’t do much at all (Confidante) and there are some songs where this ham’s lyrical cheese gets to be too much (People Want Peace) but there is always the germ of a great idea. He’s also sounding less-parched, his voice better suited to this newer material I guess. And when he shows a vulnerability, concerns around fallibility and mortality (Hand In Hand, I Don’t Know) he is showing us his true strengths.
I don’t want to hear about 76-year-old Paul fucking. But he seems to not mind. At all. In fact the saddest thing about this album to me has been the press-round. Paul telling us he and John wanked together; that he wished he could have saved Amy Winehouse (having the thinnest connection to knowing her). Well he’s a master of the anecdote and in a mild desperation to retain relevancy he’s been digging deep to think of new – or lesser known – stories this time around.
I wish the music could just do the talking. Because it’s mostly pretty great. And the more time spent with it, which is almost always true with anything, the better. Songs like Back In Brazil bugged me at first, and I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. But now I listen and think that it’s McCartney making a Beck song. And one far better than Beck has been concerned with in a decade or so.
But it’s true to say that he’s really at his best when not trying to be at all modern.
Do It Now shows the lifelong love (obsession?) with Brian Wilson and particularly God Only Knows.
Caesar Rock’s bassline is just sublime. The whole rest of the song can even go fuck itself and that bassline would still pull through. But actually we’re hearing Paul the rock’n’roller and Paul the experimentalist all at once on this track. And it’s quite thrilling
I think the best is saved for last too. Despite Repeated Warnings and Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link are both over six minutes and showcase his cleverness in stitching together different parts of songs – or even different songs, making medleys that flow, that never feel forced.
Repeated Warnings’ lyrical concern is a little naff, admittedly, with Macca weighing in on Trump. But its middle section is just perfect Ram/Chaos/Flaming Pie chugging-rock.
The final guitar solo on the final track takes us back to the end of Abbey Road and McCartney II’s On The Way.
Egypt Station is longer than it should be, but far better than it could have been.
If this is the album McCartney bows out with then he’s done himself proud – right when he never needed to.
And in terms of its hit/miss, naff/smart, smarm/charm, cool/fool ratios…well, it’s An Album By Paul McCartney.
I’m finding that I can’t stop listening to it. I’m astounded by his gifts, baffled by both his brilliance and silliness and in awe of almost all he’s done.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron