The more I listen to these recent albums, the more I’m convinced that there are two Paul McCartneys on the planet, having little, if anything, to do with each other. There’s McCartney the Public Figure, a fairly unconvincing, phoney-looking multi-millionnaire displaying a rare lack of intuition in publicly presenting anti-land-mine petitions to president Putin and pushing a barely-living, miserable-looking imitation of a happy Sixties vibe on life support with the zillionth live broadcast of ‘Hey Jude’ from some zillionth charity show. That doesn’t mean that his concerts aren’t a gas – they are, once you really get to the heart of it – but it is true, in my eyes at least, that the more public he gets in his ‘elder statesman’ persona, the more obnoxious he actually becomes.
All of this, however, has nothing to do with McCartney the Self-Sustained Artist. Well, okay, occasionally the Public Figure gets delusions of grandeur and thinks it can take over the Artist, which may result in a musical turd like ‘Freedom’, but these days, I’m happy to say, such contaminations are kept to a minimum, and on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, an album titled by putting together lyrical bits from two of the actual songs, they are downright nonexistent. This is Paul’s third seriously personal album in a row, and this time he really means business.
Two technical details are of great importance. First, this is his third attempt at writing and recording an album all by himself, following in the footsteps of the 1970 and 1980 albums. Whoever and whatever inspired this decision, it is clear that if you really wanna go introspective to the max, this is clearly the way to go. I’m not saying that the full band sound was an impediment on Flaming Pie and Driving Rain; on the other hand, those two albums looked like Paul could easily do without a full-fledged rhythm section or an experienced guitarist at his side. It is only logical that third time around, he dismissed the band altogether and switched the vibe from “driving” to silky-soft.
Second, no regular players, but an outside producer: Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame. Now don’t worry, all the “McCartney Meets Radiohead” rumours about this album are completely false. Nothing here sounds like Radiohead. However, if you take the connection broadly, in the “adding extra acoustic layers and sound depth” department, you might have something there. Radiohead or no Radiohead, the McCartney-Godrich pairing is a one-of-a-kind combination, and it did produce a one-of-a-kind album. Certainly no other McCartney album has ever sounded quite like this.
If I were to use one word, I would describe C&C as Macca’s humming album. Until now, Paul never really made ‘atmospherics’ a focal point; any moodiness or other emotional impact you might have experienced were for the most part encoded right there, within the melody. This time, something is different. The melodies are there all right: most of them, odd enough, are strictly piano-based, which is probably explained by the fact that, when alone, it’s easier for Paul to channel his creativity into keyboard practice rather than guitar. But on top of the melodies, there’s always something seriously backgroundish, hooing and whooing (and sometimes, mooing) right into your ear. Might be choirlike vocal harmonies; might be strings; might be some kind of electronic noise or whatever Godrich likes to get rolling out there when he’s putting the final touches on Thom Yorke’s next chef-d’oeuvre.
At first, this is distracting; the backgrounds seem to clash with the melodies and, honestly speaking, leave me confused. The initial impression is that Paul, for the first time in his life, has made a conscious decision to throw away the fluffy Beatlish (or, as is the case of Flaming Pie, “faux-Beatlish”) hooks and release a pop album not-for-the-masses. Something that would firmly describe him as a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being and not as a pop hook automaton, especially now that he’s somehow earned the right to be all this after delivering ten times as many pop hooks as all those trendy indie nerdy hip guys with funny haircuts have in the past two decades. Also his work in the classical music (muzak?) department might have triggered this change.
That did not really disappoint me by itself, but I was a bit concerned about whether Paul would be able to pull it off. After all, this is clearly a new, experimental approach, and not all of his experimentalism had paid off in the past. But the more I listened, the better it got. The hooks were there all along, you just had to unwrap them from their moody wrapping paper, check them for safety and then, with a sigh of relief, wrap them back in the glossy paper again. Yes, they’re squishy and they’re often tired. But everybody will sound tired upon reaching 62 (and I do mean everybody, Neil Young and Mick Jagger included); the important thing is to turn your being tired to your advantage, and I must say Paul is doing a great job of that on C&C.
And the piano is fine. Odd enough, my least favourite song on the album is the only one that’s almost exclusively guitar-dominated, the acoustic balladry of ‘Jenny Wren’. It doesn’t exactly sound out of place, but it’s a very obvious and very predictable piece of uninspired nostalgia. Listen to these chords and you’ll hear traces of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Mama’s Little Girl’, and even, oh sweet Jesus, ‘Yesterday’ (the little rising pattern at 0:53 into the song and then later). I honestly do not like it when Paul does this. Rehashing yourself is all right when you’re, say, Ray Davies – he’s done it so many times and from such an early time you’d swear it was included in his original contract with the Muses – but Paul, for me, was always above this, and now he isn’t. So maybe it’s a good thing he mostly sticks to the piano these days – for some reason, I don’t hear as many recycled piano chords on these songs as I do on the album’s lone guitar track.
Actually, if you thought the entire album was slow, moody, introspective, and hard to take in one sitting, that’s not quite true. Perfectly radio-friendly material on here includes ‘Fine Line’, a catchy, driving pop single fueled by the kind of madly effective and almost offensively simplistic piano hooks that we all know from the likes of ‘Let ‘Em In’ – and provided with lyrics that may or may not be political but in any case are a huge improvement over ‘Freedom’. Considering that none of the other songs have any anthemic feel at all, I would doubt there’s any hidden political/social agenda in ‘Fine Line’: “there is a long way, between chaos and creation if you don’t say which one of these you’re gonna choose” may be deeply personal as well. After all, it’s Paul’s creation and Paul’s chaos we’re here to witness.
Another upbeat pop song is ‘Promise To You Girl’, which starts out in classic McCartney deceptive fashion and then suddenly becomes the album’s catchiest melody, one that is worth the entire Flaming Pie effort if you ask me. Slight, fluffy, silly, and yet bookmarked by a markedly sad ‘looking through the backyard of my life/time to sweep the fallen leaves away’ statement. A little reminiscent in spirit and structure (but certainly not in the actual melody) to ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, if you ask me.
The rest is simply a collection of the most calm, collected, and, if that word really applies, philosophical pieces of music Paul has ever produced. Occasionally he even seems to be writing for the sake of putting the cart before the horse, that is, the lyrics before the music. ‘Riding To Vanity Fair’, for instance, is a long rumination on the nature of friendship (which most people naturally think is about Paul’s relations with John – but wouldn’t it be a bit too unsensitive on Paul’s part to write lyrics like ‘And I was open to friendship / But you didn’t seem to have any to spare / When you were riding to Vanity Fair’ if he were really addressing that to his old pal’s memory? I mean, it’d be okay for the early 70s when the two boys made a hobby of assassinating each other in their songs, but jeez, he’s dead now, and…?). Yet the vocal melody is still memorable, and the arrangement – with the strings gradually rising up and down and the lonely chime going tink-tink at the top of each wave, as if some kind of steady “riding” was really involved – is truly hypnotizing. Yes, it’s different, but it’s good.
Every now and then the music is suspended halfway between “song” and “atmospheric noise”, but it all comes off naturally and with purpose. ‘How Kind Of You’ is probably about Heather but while the lyrics are generic in a ‘thank you for the music’ kind of way, the mood is sad, if not desperate, with grim minor key piano patterns and mourning-style vocal harmonies (okay, I sort of take my words back – I think the coda to the song would have made a fine piece for Radiohead). ‘Follow Me’ is awash in strings which are almost in discordance with the vocals, but once you learn to place the vocals in your left ear and the strings in your right, the left ear will happily sing along to the hooks and the right one will acknowledge that some of Paul’s “working classical” has actually paid off.
Speaking of favourites, it’s really hard to pick one. The easiest way would be to go along with ‘Fine Line’, but the album’s not really about ‘Fine Line’, and everything else is frustratingly even, with the unhappy exception of ‘Jenny Wren’ (which, on the other hand, is okay too if you’re ecologically minded and have nothing against recycling). Today, at this particular hour and minute, I happen to be most touched with ‘Too Much Rain’, because of the utter beauty of the ‘too much for anyone’ chorus. A few hours ago, I was mostly under the impression of ‘English Tea’, a little exercise in string-quartetting and piano playing that does not sound like ‘Yesterday’ at all; rather, it’s “working classical” again coupled with a newly-found national identity (maybe good old Ray happened to pass by Sir Paul’s window on one particular morning). Maybe a great way to get the difference between the ‘old’ Macca and the new one would be to play that song back-to-back with ‘Heart Of The Country’ – and draw your conclusions.
Another definite flashback is the ‘hidden track’ which emerges a minute after the final notes of ‘Anyway’ (which is, by the way, a pretty touching little thing as well – despite all the accusations about Paul shamelessly stealing the melody from Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’; it’s not the melody that counts as it is the vibe, which is pure Paul and zero Curtis). The flashback in question is just the sort of mumbled-jumbled instrumental, combining interesting and boring ideas, that you had plenty of on Paul’s first album as well as during the microscopic ‘links’ on Wild Life. But if anything, it’s yet another deception, because Chaos & Creation, unlike McCartney, is never half-baked – it’s a complete, self-sufficient effort where all the songs will easily stand on their own if taken individually. In a way, you could say that third time’s the charm, even if Godrich’s presence is sort of a cheat.
And if you miss ‘Junior’s Farm’ or ‘Beware My Love’ – well, go get them! I can’t say I’m glad that this album doesn’t rock, but it would be the last thing on my mind to condemn it for a lack of energy (which it does lack). After all, it’s supposed to be an old man’s reflections on love, friendship, loss, rebirth, childhood, and maturation. How else would you go around all these things? Yes, maybe a little more diversity couldn’t hurt, and maybe Driving Rain was a bit more sharp and jagged – and certainly much more dark and disturbed – but that was an album of a man on the brink of despair, and this is an album by a man who’s somehow found the light again. Could have been a disaster, but, with the help of Godrich and a host of supernatural forces, is, on the contrary, a minor triumph.
I got into an accidental discussion with some about the Grammys last week. I watched the first half of the program and offered some thoughts on the winners, losers, and the performances and production numbers. I took a small swipe at Sir Paul McCartney. Apparently I touched a nerve. As a result of that conversation I wound up buying Chaos and Creation in the Backyard to determine whether or not my McCartney jokes were justified.
Chaos is a cohesive listen. I may be giving Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich too much credit but the presence of only one annoying, cheeky song on a McCartney solo record is nothing short of amazing. The word here is lean. There are no futile attempts at grand statement (“Freedom”). He resists the temptation to show us all how hard he is with silly bravado or posturing. Even the silly love songs are mostly absent.
The album opens with “Fine Line” which also happens to be the song from his Grammy performance that cost me 10 dollars. I called the song pedestrian based on that performance. I am now willing to back off that statement… a little.
“Fine Line” is a good example of how Chaos and Creation works. Not much grabs you on first listen. The lyrics are neither embarrassing nor revelatory. The classic rock roots of many of these songs make them unremarkable (or pedestrian). The secrets of these songs are revealed only with repeated listening. Strings do unexpected things and McCartney uses an arsenal of instruments not traditionally used in popular music such as flugelhorn, duduk, autoharp, vibes, harmonium, and glockenspiel. The choice of these unusual instruments bolsters McCartney’s gift for melody and gives the songs vitality. He not only chose them but also plays most of them himself.
“Riding to Vanity Fair” might be the coolest thing he has done in 30 years. “Vanity Fair” is the story of a broken friendship. Does “Riding to Vanity Fair” really mean “Writing to Vanity Fair?” Did the relationship in this song end because Sir Paul felt betrayed by a confidant who sold him out to the press? The lyrics are consistent with that interpretation. None of us will know what it is like to live a life where tabloids will pay to know the most mundane and intimate details of our life. “Riding to Vanity Fair” could have easily degenerated into musings from an an ivory tower, a song of self-pity for the wealthy. McCartney avoids that focusing instead on the underlying emotions. The lyrics express feelings of betrayal and sadness. We may never read about our lives on the cover of The National Enquirer but have all experienced the betrayal of having our secrets revealed by someone we trusted. Is “Riding to Vanity Fair” about being betrayed in the press? It does not matter. The emotions of the song will still resonate.
The best part of “Vanity Fair” is the music. The strings arrangement adds just the right touch of melancholy murmuring and droning to create the air of disappointment suggested in the lyrics. Acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano provide the song’s foundation. Glockenspiel accents and occasional electric guitar flourishes are all the adornment “Vanity Fair” needs.
Sir Paul’s voice is finally beginning to show its age. The high notes do not come quite as easily. His voice sounds just the slightest bit thinner. “Vanity Fair” actually benefits from this. The straining in his voice adds a sense of plaintiveness that fits comfortably.
“How Kind of You” is another victory. McCartney has written innumerable songs with this kind of saccharine sentiment. In the past, he would have married the sugary words to an equally sugary melody. “How Kind of You” is saved by the use of non-traditional instruments and strings to create a musical backdrop that is almost unsettling. The juxtaposition of the sweet words and the eeriness of the music creates tension and that tension makes the song work.
Not every song on Chaos and Creation is a complex composition like “Riding to Vanity Fair” and “How Kind of You.” “Jenny Wren” is a spare, simple acoustic song anchored by a barely audible floor tom keeping time. McCartney manages a surprise even in a sparse song like this. The duduk is not the popular choice of classic rock legends (apparently cow bell is). The duduk, an Armenian instrument with a mournful tone reminiscent of a clarinet or oboe, has a slightly unusual sound and is a great choice.
Noel Gallagher, if nothing else a pretty fair Beatles historian, sums up the lone dud on Chaos and Creation: “‘English Tea’ is atrocious and he does it to you every time.” Gallagher is right, of course. The song is bad enough in its own rite but the sequencing of the album, putting “English Tea” in the middle of the album, destroys the flow of the record. McCartney cannot help but embarrassing himself at least once on a record. Chaos and Creation would have been an even twelve songs without “English Tea” and losing those two terrible minutes would have made the remaining 44 minutes that much better.
From BBC Music
This is the first time since, ooh, 1978’s London Town that a Paul McCartney album been genuinely awaited. That’s not to say the listener hasn’t been surprised and delighted by the contents of many of his records since then. When they have been good (Flaming Pie, Flowers In The Dirt), they have bordered on exemplary; when they have been less good (Press To Play, Off The Ground) they have bordered on the execrable. But, throughout, there is always something there to remind us of Pauly’s shimmering majesty. Now, we all know McCartney doesn’t need to work, but his endless drive to be cutting edge makes him all the more endearing. He’s Paul bloody McCartney, after all.
2001’s Driving Rain was a fine rock album despite it’s awful sleeve. What truly killed it was mixing eulogies to his recently deceased wife with ones to his new partner. It felt a little, er, hasty. And he’d forgot, in the main, to pack the tunes. Oh, and 9/11 happened on its release date too. No wonder it only spent a solitary week in the chart.
Since then, McCartney has reconnected with his live audience and has gone back to playing virtually everything himself in the studio. In working with Radiohead/Beck producer Nigel Godrich, McCartney actually sounds somewhat stretched.
So what does it sound like? Very, very good. He still finds it essential to play the chart game hence opener “Fine Line”, the weakest track on the 14-track collection. But “Riding To Vanity Fair”, “Too Much Rain”, “Anyway” and “How Kind Of You” are full of subtle nuances, killer hooks and sweet surprises. They really do rank among his very best work. And “Jenny Wren” nods to “Blackbird” too.
Chaos and Creation In The Backyard is a better album than anyone could reasonably expect from a 63-year-old who helped remould not just world popular music but world popular culture, as well. He’s Paul bloody McCartney, after all.