At 71, Paul McCartney hasn’t changed his tune, despite calling his latest and 16th (!) studio album, New. He’s the same affable rock star he was back in October of 1962, when he issued The Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do”. That ornamental English accent, his trademark shag, and his boyish smile can still charm teenagers across the world, as creepy and awkward as that might sound, in theory. In every way, he’s the industry’s Stephen Colbert; a coy, intelligent, and sharply dressed man, forever entertaining from the stage, whether it’s recorded or IRL. Truth be told, there isn’t another McCartney we know of, the same way there isn’t another Colbert, which is why few people ever have anything but positive words for them (well, with the exception of conservatives and those that side with Lennon, Harrison, Starr, or Stewart).
That’s why it’s so odd to hear McCartney sing a line like, “All my life I never knew/ What I could be, what I could do.” Of course, he’s referring to his post-Heather Mills relationship with Nancy Shevell, but the line still feels telling, nonetheless. He’s always been forthcoming with his narratives — whether it’s something obvious like “Maybe I’m Amazed” or rather mercurial like “Friends to Go” — but a track like “New” suggests he’s been holding back on his inner demons. Granted, the surviving Beatle’s tickled at his own self-deprecation throughout his entire career, but that’s a pretty weighty line. It’s as if Billy Joel released a song called “I’ve Never Had a Drop”, or Dylan teased fans with a line like, “The times are bored/ and I’ve been young too long.” Basically, that line’s enough to make you think, Okay, what’s up Paul?
The answer? A lot. Over 13 tracks, McCartney proves he’s a better Paul than 2007′s Memory Almost Full, a more romantic Paul than 2005′s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, a more inventive Paul than 2001′s Driving Rain, and a more nostalgic Paul than 1997′s Flaming Pie. All of those tour dates and festival spots revisiting Abbey Road, Revolver, and Past Masters have paid off tremendously, bringing us a round of stormy blues rock (“I Can Bet”), elegant balladry (“On My Way to Work”), furious post-folk (“Everybody Out There”), and, naturally, the timeless AM pop of yesteryear (“New”). It’s like he feels he has something to prove, as he sings on “Alligator”: “Everybody else is busy doing better than me/ But I can see why it is.”
Though, unlike so many veterans who still feel compelled to regale us with new releases, McCartney does so under the auspices that it’s okay to absorb today’s influences. And why not? Opening track “Save Us” jogs at the frantic throwback pace of The Strokes or half a dozen garage rock bands of the last 10 years, only there’s a slight Wings glaze to it (invite Julian Casablancas in and it might be an early demo of “Reptilia”, but don’t tell Paul). “Appreciate” toggles electronica a la Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, though there’s a grinding slide guitar solo at the end that tailors to McCartney’s closet Southern rock obsession. It’s surprising that out of all the tracks here, this one isn’t produced by Mark Ronson, but Giles Martin. The two shared the controls behind New, alongside Ethan Johns and Paul Epworth. In hindsight, it’s rather poetic that George Martin’s son would be the one to shed a modern light on McCartney.
Forty-seven minutes is a long time, however, and allows for a few minor bruises. The repetitive psychedelia of “Hosanna” begs for Harrison or Clapton’s guitar work; the inventive “Looking at Her” gets a little cyclical, despite the Muse-y fills; and the theatrical, Who-inspired closer “Road” scrambles to reach the peak its lyrical and instrumental climb suggests. Instead, it’s the album’s “secret” track, “Scared”, that serves as an apt closer, a bare bones ballad that finds McCartney at his best instrument: the piano. Amidst a midnight stream of consciousness, he sings: “I’m still too scared to tell you/ Afraid to let you see/ That the simplest of words won’t come out of my mouth, though I’m dying to set them free/ Trying to let you see/ How much you mean to me.” And like that, he leaves us with the Paul we’re most familiar with — the helpless heartbreaker.
As Ben Greenman recently wrote in The New Yorker, “He’s Paul McCartney, and he’s Paul McCartney now the way that he was Paul McCartney ten years ago, or 30, generically exhorting listeners to action or reminding them of glory of love or sketching the outlines of a less pleasant emotion (fear, sadness, unregulated anger) without any real specifics.” That idea remains true on New, which is why it’s so enjoyable, and accessible, and quintessential to McCartney’s catalogue. Yet, a read between the lines suggests that he’s turning pages on his life that crack the Dorian Gray through-line he’s nurtured with his impromptu high school performances and Times Square takeovers. It all sounds and feels new, but his wiry navel-gazing suggests otherwise. “They can’t take it from me if they try/ I lived through those early days,” he pleads on acoustic number “Early Days”. Those aren’t the words of a young man, but the words of an older bard, and only now are we saying hello.
Essential Tracks: “Early Days”, “New”, “Everybody Out There”, and “Appreciate”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard: