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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #10: Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and More

I'm at the point chronologically where Sir Paul turns 60 years old, and I'm finding that I really kind of like the man. I've never disliked him, of course--for one, I don't know him at all, obviously, so how I could I say I dislike him? And two, I wouldn't spend this much time listening to his music if I didn't admire his talent and see what he can manage to creation, and it's hard to square that with dislike or contempt. But this month I read my third biography of McCartney this year, Fab by Howard Sounes, and while it many ways it was more critical and snarky towards McCartney than either of the two earlier books, it is also the first one to catch me up in a spirit of real appreciation for the man. Heading into his seventh decade on Earth, and here is his, still touring, still keeping the spirit of the Beatles alive, still trying new sounds, still mining his brilliant melodic skills, still fighting against his own arrogance and desperate crowd-pleasing nature to try to create pop worth listening to. Really, he's a hell of man. For the first time this year, I found myself feeling real, genuine regret that, when I had the chance, I wasn't willing to pay whatever it would take and get up however early in the morning I needed to in order to score tickets. Oh well. At least I'll always have the albums.

Those albums, the production of his apparently inexhaustible desire to create and perform, remain a mixed bag. He wrote and helped arrange another classical album, Working Classical, this one actually a fairly disciplined set of chamber pieces and tone poems. It was all right--the classical treatment of his own pop compositions were pleasantly Muzaky, but I think his previous effort, Standing Stone, was better. Also, working with various electronica collaborators and not part of The Fireman, McCartney mined old Beatles tapes and various found clips to create Liverpool Sound Collage. It's an interesting art project, I suppose, but listening to it once was more than enough for me.

What about Driving Rain, his first full album of original pop and rock since Linda McCartney had passed away three years earlier? There is an intentionally rough quality to the project, as though Macca was challenging himself to be a younger man again. In my view, sometimes that works--"Lonely Road," "She's Given Up Talking," "About You," "Driving Rain," and "Spinning On An Axis," all have solid, inviting grooves--but sometimes it doesn't--"From a Lover to a Friend" is just soggy and mournful, "I Do" is insubstantial, "Your Way" goes nowhere, and "Rinse the Raindrops" is a pointless jam. "Your Loving Flame" is an adequate ballad, and a couple of songs--"Tiny Bubbles" and "Riding Into Jaipur" are really quite fine. I have to confess, though, that the whole album is unfortunately weighed down even further (at least in my mind, though I suspect I'm not alone) by two tracks: "Heather," which contains probably the best single melody on the whole album, is a paean to Heather Mills, and that only makes me think about that sad, quickly-ended rebound marriage of his; and "Freedom," which is just a stupid, hand-clapping bit of borrowed American patriotism that he wrote in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It's musically unimpressive and lyrically embarrassing, and best forgotten. Let's give the album a C-, and leave it at that.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is a better album; not tremendously so, but definitely a step up. (This is, incidentally, also the first solo McCartney album, chronologically speaking, that I can remember really being curious about and listening intently to, back in 2005.) Working almost entirely without a band, and for the first time in 20 years with someone else in the studio playing the producer role, it is, at the very least, a shorter album: listening to Macca makes it clear that he really has no qualms about putting not-quite-finished stuff on his albums, but this time around it's pretty clear that some songs were left on the master tapes, and that's a good thing. "Fine Line" kicks it off with some great, ELO-style pop orchestration, and through the album there are several other nearly (if not quite) first rate tunes: "How Kind of You" is a sleek, ruminative ballad, "English Tea" is a hoot (it had been too long since McCartney had given us one of his "granny" songs!), "Too Much Rain" is life-affirming pop without feeling saccharine, and "Riding to Vanity Fair" is just this side of terrific: an ambitious tune, with moody echoes and reticent, careful lyrics, it stands far above everything else on the album. There's a lot of love out there for "Jenny Wren" and "Friends to Go," but I think they're just okay. And despite having an outside producer overseeing him, Macca's tendency to leave a song with an unfinished feeling: "A Certain Softness," "Follow Me," and "Promise to You Girl" fall into this category, and I would argue "Anyway" does too, which is too bad: it's really beautiful, with McCartney turning the chord progression from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" into an expansive, luxurious, piano-based love song, but one without a proper resolution, I think. Still, overall, the whole album is a worthy effort. Another respectable B- album from Sir Paul, says I.