The notion of a “cover”—the performance of a song that the performer did not write as something exceptional—is a relatively recent one in the long history of song. The act was simply called “singing” for the many centuries when composers did the work of creation, and singers took care of the separate but significantly creative work of interpretation. Blues, folk, and other vernacular musicians, abandoning the hierarchal rules of the specialization model, transformed the song culture in this country and made songwriting and singing a unified art of individualistic expression. (Hoagy Carmichael was a singer as well as a songwriter, Frank Sinatra co-wrote a few songs, and there are innumerable other examples of song artists throughout history breaking ranks in all sorts of ways.) Among the musicians most famously responsible for collapsing the old categories of creation and performance are the Beatles, of course, and their enduring effect is such that the decision by Paul McCartney to make an album as a singer, performing long-established songs written by others—that is, his choice to make the kind of album that was commonplace in the pre-rock era and is still made frequently in classical, jazz, and other musics—is promotable as big news.
But it is not. McCartney’s album, a collection of love songs timed for release a week before the most wonderful day of the year for the Rite Aid gift aisle, Valentine’s Day, is a lovely, impeccably proficient, and occasionally stirring work of formulaic, largely pointless conventionality. Coyly titled Kisses on the Bottom, from a line in the first track, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” the album has musical direction by the fine jazz pianist Diana Krall, who proves on the album to be the better of the two blonde keyboard players McCartney has recorded with over the years. The living master of luxurious strings, Johnny Mandel, contributed a few arrangements; and the repertoire—which includes two songs written by McCartney himself—is a nice mix of familiar standards (Irving Berlin’s “Always,” which McCartney sings elegantly in the highlight of the album, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”) and lesser known entertainments from the frothier waters of pre-rock music, such as “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” and “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me).” (McCartney, whose publishing company holds the rights to the catalogs of Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, and other composers of Tin Pan Alley, owns eight of the fourteen songs on the record, including the two he wrote.) Kisses on the Bottom is perfectly made, meticulously rendered, but mostly—not wholly, but mostly—lacking in the strength of personality and point of view, the effortful sense of an artist striving to say something he wants us very badly to know, that made the Beatles, at their best, and McCartney, at his own best as a solo artist, important.
McCartney has said repeatedly over the years that comparisons between his earlier and more recent work are moot. Granting him that, it’s fairer to consider Kisses on the Bottom in relation to other albums by singers doing the standards in a manner intended to honor their tradition. In kindness as well as fairness, let’s ignore a few: Sentimental Journey, the first solo album by Paul’s old bandmate, Ringo Starr; A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, the overwrought make-out album made by arranger-conductor Gordon Jenkins and John Lennon’s notorious carousing pal Harry Nilsson; the well intentioned but high-strung (and high-pitched) albums of standards by Carly Simon and Linda Rondstadt; and the whole catalog of standard muffing by Rod Stewart. As a singer, McCartney sounds beautiful on Kisses on the Bottom, crooning gently in his extraordinarily preserved tenor, and he handles the breezy material with a Music Hall smile. He approaches all the music lightly, with a supremely delicate touch. He handles the old songs like precious curios, as if they’d break if he applied too much to them, and, with the notable exception of “Always” and his own “My Valentine,” he avoids the hard work of interpretation to illuminate the lyrical meaning of the songs. For all his skills as a musician, McCartney fails here to fully serve this material by drawing levels of meaning from the words in the way that past masters of the standards such as Frank Sinatra (or the most sensitive singers in their tradition working now, such as Eric Comstock) have. This may be by habit. After all, it’s not levels of meaning that distinguish the bulk of the vast output of songs he has been writing and singing for decades. With Kisses on the Bottom, McCartney has made a pretty, cheerily listenable album of covers. If only he had done more uncovering, more looking underneath.