BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 26, 2005
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard
The last time Paul McCartney made an album in the vein of his latest CD, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, John Lennon was alive to hear it. McCartney had just cast off Wings, the notoriously ephemeral quasi-band comprising his blithe novice-musician wife, Linda, and their loyal mate Denny Laine (augmented on some records by a floating assortment of players varying in ability) after nine years, ten LPs, and countless critical gibes at the slyly criticism-proof "Silly Love Songs." With the benefit of nine days of stock-taking in a Tokyo jail on a charge of marijuana possession, McCartney retrenched; he re-grouped without a group, playing all the instruments on an album called McCartney II in 1980. "He sounds depressed," Lennon told a writer for Playboy not long before he was murdered twenty-five years ago this month. Indeed, with the exception of the intricate, bouncy single "Coming Up" and the grating "Temporary Secretary," most of the songs on the record were startlingly, uncharacteristically, almost refreshingly lugubrious and dull. McCartney was ready to re-claim his musical identity, if only he could find it. The album was a titular sequel to his first solo venture, made ten years earlier, immediately after McCartney had left his previous band. McCartney, much like the records John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr each made immediately after the Beatles disbanded, was an act of purging. Yet unlike Lennon's Plastic Ono Band (a Janovian scream of self-defined genius in pain), Harrison's All Things Must Pass (a creative awakening in the name of pop mysticism), and Starr's Sentimental Journey (an outrageous attempt to croon standards, with some elegant arrangements by Oliver Nelson and Chico O'Farrell), McCartney was less an effort to establish an individual identity as it was an attempt to purge the Beatles of its group identity. I don't need those other three (nor anyone else besides my wife), McCartney seemed to be saying. I can do it all, just as well, by myself, in the backyard of my estate in Scotland. The album was something of a cheat: supposedly home-made on lo-fi equipment, it was only partly so. Several of the most striking tracks, including "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Junk," and "Every Night," were recorded in secrecy, over time, in top London studios, and the best songs ("Junk" and "Teddy Boy") had been composed years earlier, with the Beatles in mind.
Still, McCartney was impressive and appealing. It was also flawed by an excess of fragmentary, slipshod tracks--harbingers of Paul's long solo career. By making proudly Beatles-esque music all by himself, writing every word and playing and singing virtually every note (Linda contributed some background vocals, though not many notes), McCartney shook off Lennon, Harrison, and Starr to try to prove that what remained without them, Paul McCartney, was the Beatles. By simultaneously corrupting the effort, mingling the sophisticated, burnished moments with others of maladroit noodling, he laid claim both to the esteem of the Beatles' achievements and to the license to coast off them as he chose.
The new CD is, essentially, McCartney III. It brings McCartney playing nearly all the instruments--various guitars, piano, organ, bass, drums, miscellaneous percussion, autoharp, recorder, even cello, flugelhorn, and toy glockenspiel. (Several tracks have additional string and brass sections, and a few guest soloists handle specialty instruments such as the duduk, an Armenian woodwind.) As with McCartney and McCartney II, this effort is an attempt at re- definition--in this case, a clarification of McCartney's creative identity after more than a decade of diffusive fiddling, sidesteps, dalliances, and half- hearted experiments. For his previous album, released four years ago, McCartney wrote the songs hastily, in some cases finishing them in the studio, and he recorded the music with unfamiliar young studio musicians under Los Angeles producer David Kahne. The result, Driving Rain, was even weaker, more scattershot than his preceding recording of original material, Flaming Pie, from 1997, a toy chest full of colorful, misshapen playthings, including two songs written while they were being recorded: a duet with Steve Miller and a nonsense riff called "Really Love You," co-credited to Ringo because he supplied the backbeat. McCartney explained that working on the Beatles' Anthology of obscurities had inspired him to make Flaming Pie, which not only derived its named from a vintage bon mot by John Lennon but whose music sounds very much like Beatles rejects, demos, and outtakes. (They were nominally improved by Jeff Lynne, their producer, who tried brushing the album with that metallic ELO sound.) Both records had notable high points, though: Driving Rain's "She's Given Up Talking," a cryptic story-song, and Flaming Pie's "Calico Skies" and "Heaven on a Sunday," a pair of lovely ballads.
Between the two albums, in 1998, McCartney lost his wife to cancer and wrestled with the grief, recording a raw, bleak album of early rock and roll numbers (and a few originals in their style) with a tight little pick-up band. Named Run Devil Run for a sign that he saw on a New Orleans drug store, the record is a small triumph, but it is essentially not Paul McCartney music. A month later, he released a collection of short pieces in the classical mode, Working Classical, his third CD of concert music, following the well-meaning work of apprenticeship, "Liverpool Oratorio" in 1991, and the overwrought "Standing Stone" six years later. Like every one of his pop albums, including the worst, Working Classical is, by turns, uncommonly tuneful and pleasant (most notably in a pair of sweet, pretty tone poems, "A Leaf" and "Spiral") and numbingly trite (as in the string-quartet versions of "My Love" and "Lovely Linda").
He sees every musical venture as a rail journey, McCartney explained in a recent interview to promote Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. "It's like sort of stepping on a train," he said. "I don't worry about other trains I've been on, just this new train, and that's exciting. You just have to realize that perhaps you can't always have as great a journey as you had in the past." Of course, riding a locomotive is a passive experience. It is not much like the active and often arduous creative processes that composers and musicians typically describe. If McCartney thinks of himself as a mere passenger in the course of his work, one wonders: who, then, is steering? Who, or what, is running the engine? His producer? His collaborators? His audience? Each of them influences him, sometimes mightily. But the primary traits of his music--its casualness, its buoyancy, its disarming juvenility, its caprice, its wild unevenness in quality--suggest that McCartney tends to entrust his destiny to only one driver: himself. His own talent took him so far for so long that he has become content to go along for the ride.
For Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, McCartney hired the producer Nigel Godrich, because he liked the textured clarity of the albums that Godrich recorded for Radiohead, Travis, and Beck. It was Godrich who persuaded McCartney to avoid his penchant for winging it, in a phrase, and urged him to pare down, to concentrate on song craft, to play as many instruments as possible himself, to re-claim his musical personality. "He wanted to keep it really simple, really straight, really direct and very me instead of `Let's get modern, let's get gimmicky' or `Let's do this because it's the latest groove,'" McCartney said. The album succeeds at that: it has a plaintive, organic feeling. The songs, all but one of which are mid-tempo ballads, flow smoothly and have affecting, simple melodies. There is less filler than usual for McCartney--only "Friends to Go" (a song about wanting people to leave the house, "Let `Em In" reversed) and "Follow Me" (which says that and little more) are outright throwaways. There are three treats--"Fine Line" (the single, and vintage McCartney pop), "Jenny Wren" (a lyrical folkish number, a close cousin to "Blackbird," inspired by the Dickens character from Our Mutual Friend), and "Riding to Vanity Fair" (Paul in a petulant, arty mode). The rest of the music-- eight more songs, plus a "bonus" instrumental jam (McCartney having fun with himself) tacked on at the end but not listed on the credits-- is quite good, but hardly exceptional; catchy, but not memorable. On the whole, the album has the confidence and the veracity missing from McCartney II, but it falls far short of McCartney in both chaos and creation.
Uncommonly deft as a musician, McCartney has played multiple instruments since he was a Beatle and overdubbed all the parts to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" In fact, he worked alone to make a few of the most durable recordings of his Wings and solo years--"Oh Woman, Oh Why" (the superior flip side to his first post-Beatles single, "Another Day"), "Arrow Through Me" (credited to Wings in 1979), and "Return to Pepperland" (recorded for an album intended to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in 1987, but never issued commercially), as well as two CDs of techno experiments that he released in the 1990s under the pseudonym the Fireman. Still, as Chaos and Creation in the Backyard reminds us, assuming responsibility for the whole has a way of diminishing McCartney's commitment to each part. In the Beatles, his playing was frequently most inventive when his role on a track was limited, as in his bass lines on George Harrison's "Something" and "Old Brown Shoe," his drumming on John Lennon's "Dear Prudence, " and his electric guitar solo on Harrison's "Taxman." The musicianship on Chaos and Creation is merely functional--dazzling only in concept, only if you read the credits. Unless the music works as well as that of a group with more than one member (as some past McCartney efforts have), the one-man-band scheme is a banal gimmick, anyway. An application of the King Buffet aesthetic, it measures value by quantity--by all you can play, not by how good any of it is.
The ego at the heart of every do-it-all act was already rife for parody in 1921, when Buster Keaton (a cinematic multi-hyphenate himself) directed The Playhouse, a stunning silent short (intended to be accompanied by live music) that shows a stage full of performers, all portrayed by Keaton (thanks to a special effect executed by rewinding a hand-cranked camera, removing strips of tape from the lens, one by one, and exposing the film multiple times). "This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show," jokes a character, through a title card. Six decades later, McCartney made a music video presenting himself playing all the instruments on "Coming Up," an update of The Playhouse done with a blue screen and no irony. A promotional documentary DVD packaged in a special edition of the Chaos and Creation dispenses with the effects, but fixes on McCartney's versatility, cross-cutting scenes of him at the grand piano, him strumming his guitar, him behind the drum kit--making clear the message that the fellow is the whole show.
This mandarin idealization of music-making as craft marks a fall from the elevated place to which McCartney helped to bring pop music as a Beatle. While many of the Beatles recordings were multi-tracked, performed by only one or two members of the band ("The Ballad of John and Yoko," for instance, has only John and Paul playing all the instruments), they were done in the larger context of an approach that challenged the rock audience to think of music as an expression of creative intelligence rather than an exercise in technique. "Yesterday" features only one Beatle, Paul, and a string quartet; "Revolution #9" is an aural montage of found-object recordings; "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" has a tape of a calliope cut apart and re-arranged--yet their fans came to understand this work as Beatles music, because the band members were the source of its ideas, whether or not they had their hands on the instruments or used conventional instruments at all.
Despite its Grammy nomination for album of the year, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard disappoints, as much of McCartney's solo music does, because it is good and not great; that is, it fails to meet the standard McCartney established for his own work some forty years ago. Asked about "Yesterday" in an interview with Robert Shelton, Bob Dylan remarked that "if you go into the Library of Congress, you can find--there are millions of songs like that written in Tin Pan Alley." John Lennon, asked late in his life about the same song, said, "Wow, that was a good `un!" Both of them were correct. "Yesterday" is indeed like millions of older songs in kind, but it is also superior to a great many in quality. McCartney is a genre composer, as Irving Berlin was; and at his best, as a Beatle, McCartney drew upon a handful of compositional models to create exemplary specimens in his own voice--the musical-hall tune ("When I'm Sixty Four," "Honey Pie"), the screeching rocker ("I'm Down," "Helter Skelter"), the love ballad ("Yesterday," "Michelle," "The Long and Winding Road"), the folk ditty ("Mother Nature's Son," "Two of Us"), and more. This is not to say that he was incapable of breaking ground as a composer; he could and did in the Beatles (his conception for Sgt. Pepper's, his work on the medley on Abbey Road) and occasionally in his solo work ("Talk More Talk" and "Pretty Little Head" from Press to Play, the Fireman albums). For the most part, though, Lennon's specialty was invention, and McCartney's was refinement. In the 1960s, McCartney stood as the postwar generation's defense against the then- vociferous attacks on the ostensible inadequacies of rock songwriters. Even those of us who preferred Lennon and considered his music more important could hold up Paul and say, Look, here's one of ours, and he's as good as Irving Berlin. It remains difficult to accept that as a delusion when, with every new album, McCartney taunts us with snippets of charming melody and, sometimes, even a clever turn of phrase.
I have met Paul McCartney a couple of times, and we once spent a good deal of an evening together--on September 10, 2001, not that the date meant a thing to us then. We talked for a while about his father, an amateur musician, and about his childhood in Liverpool. I was taken aback to find that McCartney, one of the most successful men in the world, still liked to think of himself as working class (or wanted to be thought of as such). There is no doubt an element of blue-collar pride in the populism that infuses his music. At the same time, much of what he does is, in a way, a betrayal of his class. McCartney was granted an extraordinary musical gift--as an artist, he was born into privilege, and for most of his solo career, he has simply glided along, exploiting that entitlement without exerting much effort. He always been busy and productive, but he just doesn't work hard enough.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.