November 26, 2014
“New” is the new album by Paul McCartney, the release of which is an occasion for the former Beatle to do a requisite victory lap of national media outlets where he is asked the usual litany of questions about his relationship with John Lennon, the breakup of the Beatles, and the writing of his many classic songs. You also can count on him to perform, as if by federal court order, “Hey Jude” or “Lady Madonna.”
The title of this latest collection of new songs, his first in six years and scheduled for release Tuesday, might suggest a slight fatiguing of the whole routine. How could he not? Last week, when performing a promotional show at a performing arts high school in Astoria, Queens, he was asked, breathlessly, by New York radio DJ Jim Kerr, “how can one mind create so many memorable melodies?” McCartney’s reply: “Uh … I don’t know.”
“New” is for the post-Beatles-slash-post-Wings faithful who have long known that the Cute One’s solo work — at least much of it over the last two decades — has quietly pushed the boundaries one would not expect from rock royalty who might otherwise opt for reeling in the years. While the public McCartney carries the Beatles legacy with dignity, his late catalog releases are mutinous, as they unravel the past with the burning energy and hooks of someone who may have been influenced by his old band but was never a member.
For years, this came through via his Fireman releases, where his name didn’t appear at all. On “New,” McCartney launches a firing shot — “I can try and give you everything you ever wanted/you’re hard to please” — on the opening song (“Save Us”), a wiry, two-minute-plus rocker that establishes the 71-year-old as not yet ready for rest.
The rejuvenation can be linked to the guiding hands in the production, notably Adele collaborator Paul Epworth, DJ-producer Mick Ronson, and second-generation producers Giles Martin (son of George) and Ethan Johns (son of Glyn). They summon sly but unmistakable Beatles references through certain harmony arrangements, guitar tones and other accents, yet they also help build an expansive sonic environment that enhances each song’s palette while fattening their rhythmic groove.
On “Alligator,” a shuffle, McCartney compares his restlessness to that of a trapped zoo animal, all the while sounding far behind the bars. The bashing metallic chorus of “Appreciate” surges unexpectedly, and then calms once more in a chilled-out electro-groove. Likewise, “Looking at Her” combs the sexual anxiety of the lyrics (“I’m losing my mind/doesn’t she know/why can’t she see/look at the effect she’s having on me”) through thick digitized fuzz.
No surprise the melodies are sturdy — heard on the manic singsong of “Queenie Eye,” and guitar-and-tambourine-driven “Everybody Out There.” While dogged as the guy who writes silly love songs, McCartney also is comfortable in the aftermath of romance: Many of these songs, like those throughout his solo catalog, hover in the far margins of pedestrian life. Despite the lovely strum of “On My Way to Work,” the song actually is in the first-person of a lonely soul who discovers a glamor shot of a lost love in a magazine. “How can I have so many dreams and one of them not come true,” he sings.
Then there’s the past, an intimidating subject for any songwriter with more time logged backward than what remains, and which isn’t any easier when you were in the Beatles. McCartney’s vocals strain with vulnerability on “Early Days,” cracking alongside the acoustic guitar strum. Unlike his public persona that reliably casts Beatlemania in a sentimental glow, the conflict underneath rises: “I lived through those early days/sometimes I had to change the pain to laughter/just to keep from getting crazed.”
In closing the song, McCartney releases a final arrow: “Now everybody seems to have their own opinion/about who did this and who did that/as for me I don’t see how they can remember/when they weren’t where it was at.”