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Thursday, January 02, 2020

My Year with the Walrus

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Over the twelve months of 2019, I listened to every single Paul McCartney album, thus becoming a Macca completist. Not an expert; I wouldn't claim that, as I don't have that knowledge base, nor that skill. I'm not a musician--I played the violin all through middle school and high school more than 30 years ago, and there were some piano and voice lessons in there as well, but none of it stuck, and I've never studied music beyond that. So claiming any kind of genuinely expert assessment of what Sir Paul has accomplished in his more than 60 years of music-making would be pretentious in the extreme.

That said, I'm not a slouch when it comes to pop music. There was a 15-year or so stretch of my young life where what I heard coming out of the radio was the most important thing around. That's not the case as an almost-51-year-old today--but our home remains one that is filled with music. This is partly thanks to my wife (a skilled pianist), but partly also to the fact that we both are just constantly listening to (and all our children were raised while surrounded by, and thus have gotten used to always hearing) songs. Broadway tunes, cartoon theme songs, Christian hymns, silly made-up ditties, movie soundtracks, Zumba workouts, and more; look at our radio settings, our CD collections, and our phones--you can find it all. But most of all there is lots and lots of pop music, of almost every variety. So my listening to everything ever recorded by the radio-friendliest of all pop musicians was perhaps inevitable.

It came out of deal between an old college friend of mine and I, and involved some basic parameters: I would listen to, and review, every official post-Beatles album of new material that McCartney has ever released, both with Wings and as a solo artist. As the year went by some of the parameters expanded, or changed. I ended up reading no less that four biographies of the man, the most recent (and not, perhaps, the best, but certainly the most complete) being Paul McCartney: The Life, by Philip Norman. Because I'm a story-telling person--as just about every human being is on one level or another--this mean that with every album, with every evolution in McCartney's approach to recording, both in terms of musical partners and subject matter, to say nothing of with every twist in his personal life, I found myself telling myself a new story to help me make sense of this impossibly talented, surprisingly intellectual, often demanding, yet also frequently cavalier and lazy artist--and then, because Macca just keeps on going, I would have to tell myself another one, and then yet another one again, as I ticked off the albums, month after month after month. Macca has, over the years, come out with more "comeback albums" following a fallow period than most musicians and bands release in their entire careers. You just can't pin down someone so protean, and so productive--or at least I couldn't. Maybe if was a professional musician, or maybe if I lived in Los Angeles or London, things would be different. But I'm here in Wichita, and so what I do is give everything that comes out a listen--that, and enthusiastically cheer when the pop music gods happen to come our way.

One thing I will say: while Paul absolutely has his dark and demanding side, his over-all reputation as a fundamentally decent human being seems well earned--and, of course, well reflected in his music. The evidence is everywhere, if you care to look for it, that Paul simply hates the fact that he has lived for a half-century with the image of himself as a boring work-horse, a desperate crowd-pleaser, haunting the public consciousness. And yet, he's obviously learned to live with, even embrace, that discontent, because there's so much truth in it. He loves making music, especially the kind of music that people can sing along to. He loves surprising people too, and listening beyond the hits, or beyond the albums where radio stations stopped paying him much attention to him, reveals a lot of moody, complex, and insightful tunes. But any such work is always more than balanced out by songs of the first type. In the end--and honestly, who knows when that will ever come for this now nearly 80-year-old man?--all Paul McCartney has ever wanted was to be on a stage, holding his guitar, leading his band in song. He's got what he wanted, and by and large, the world is better for it.

Okay, so fine--the real question anyone who has read this far will has is simply: what's worth listening to? Well, here's my list of all of McCartney's and Wings's officially released albums of new material. This excludes the four recordings of classical pieces he composed (yes, I listened to them all; the chamber and symphonic pieces were better than his oratorios), his two albums of classic rock and roll covers (both pretty excellent), his album of jazz standards (I was unimpressed), and three of his four albums of experimental, electronic, and ambient music, with different various collaborators (a very mixed bag, but see below). If you want all my nitty-gritty details and opinions, just click here and start scrolling. But for now, my ranking:

Wings, Band on the Run, 1973--A

McCartney, Tug of War, 1982--A-

McCartney, Egypt Station, 2018--B+
McCartney, Flowers in the Dirt, 1989--B+

The Fireman (McCartney and Youth), Electric Arguments, 2008--B
McCartney, Memory Almost Full, 2007--B
McCartney, Off the Ground, 1993--B
Wings, Venus and Mars, 1975--B
Wings, Wings at the Speed of Sound, 1976--B

McCartney, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005--B-
McCartney, Flaming Pie, 1997--B-
McCartney, New, 2013--B-
McCartney, Ram, 1971--B-
Wings, Red Rose Speedway, 1973--B-

McCartney, Pipes of Peace, 1983--C+

McCartney, McCartney, 1970--C
Wings, Wild Life, 1971--C

Wings, Back to the Egg, 1979--C-
McCartney, Driving Rain, 2001--C-
McCartney, Give My Regards to Broad Street, 1984--C-
Wings, London Town, 1978--C-

McCartney, Press to Play, 1986--D+

McCartney, McCartney II, 1980--D

Obviously, I like the man's work; I rank more than a 1/3 of everything he has put out (leaving aside the aforementioned non-pop recordings) at a B or higher, and I don't think he's ever released an outright failure--there is always, always, on every McCartney recording, some tune or melody or collection of chords that genuinely charms. And I don't mean this to be some sliding scale. While there are plenty of songs from this nearly half-century of albums that I can barely remember today, weeks or months after giving them a listen, some of the radio hits of McCartney's solo and Wings years--I'm thinking of "Maybe I'm Amazed, " "Jet," "Junior's Farm," "Listen to What the Man Said," "With a Little Luck," "Goodnight Tonight," "Take It Away," and "No More Lonely Nights"--are, I think, equal to anything he did as a member of the Beatles. Plus, in the midst of all that forgettable stuff I listened to, I found more than two dozen songs that, in a better world, would have been released as singles, and would have blown us away: "Smile Away" and "Too Many People" from Ram; "Get on the Right Thing" from Red Rose Speedway; "Let Me Roll It" and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" from Band on the Run; "Call Me Back Again" and "Magneto and Titanium Man" from Venus and Mars; "Beware My Love"from Speed of Sound "Wanderlust" and "What's That You're Doing?" from Tug of War; "Hey Hey" from Pipes of Peace; "Figure of Eight" and "We Got Married" from Flowers in the Dirt; "Biker Like an Icon" and "Peace in the Neighborhood" from Off the Ground; "Calico Skies" from Flaming Pie; "English Tea" and "Riding to Vanity Fair" from Chaos and Creation; "House of Wax" and "The End of the End" from Memory Almost Full; "Sing the Changes" and "Sun is Shining" from Electric Arguments; "I Can Bet" from New; "Happy With You" and "Dominoes" from Egypt Station.

So yeah, I've made a lot of discoveries, and been reminded of a lot of fine songs I'd forgotten. The sort of musical project everyone ought to commit themselves do? Obviously not. But, for me, for this year...was it worth it? Obviously yes.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Thanks for all of these!