What does it mean to be a lifer? To have the talent and the luck and the driving desire and work ethic to make your mark and then to keep on making it, weathering all manner of stylistic turnabout and generational overthrow, creating a towering body of work that holds you to an ever higher standard, so much so that you can wonder, after more than half a century of creation: What more is there possibly to say?
Such a conundrum is only highlighted by the youthful nature of the music. Paul McCartney grew up with rock ‘n’ roll, part of that first wave of musicians to be directly influenced by its founding icons. When challenged by John Lennon on that fateful day when they met, he could recite the words to both “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula”; and so his co-conspirator was able to recognize him as a kindred spirit, thus changing the course of rock history forever. His band not only ushered in the music’s silver age, but became its avatar, embodying a phenomenal artistic growth spurt as the 1960s spiraled and pinwheeled and turned music inside-out. Even now, the arc of the Beatles sounds like no one else from their era: beyond categorization, fresh and innovative and instantly recognizable.
As the group spun off into its individual components, it was McCartney who seemed destined to be The Entertainer. As a Beatle — “the cute one” — he was nonetheless the lynchpin who held their volatile personalities together, embodying a show-must-go-on ethos, celebrating traditional values of songcraft and professionalism, as well as the grand symphonic gesture (See: “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “The Long and Winding Road”). But over time, he would prove hard to pigeonhole, breaking free of niches with a shake of his head and a pluck of his Hofner and that unearthly scream. As a solo artist, he seemed comfortable with all manner of sonic adventure, from the schismatic and dream-like cut-ups of “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey” to the wide-screen bombast of “Live And Let Die,” to some Wings’ more fanciful excursions. He wasn’t afraid of “Silly Love Songs,” even as he would compose an ambitious orchestral work like 1991′s Liverpool Oratorio, a range that would allow him to explore 20th Century music in the same way the recent, Kisses On The Bottom, honored the classic pop standards that gave him initial inspiration.
But with the next millennia on the rise, McCartney still seems eager to find where that inspiration will lead him. He’s chosen to approach his music through an outside lens; despite the assembled quartet of young-gun producers, and the apparent closeness with which he worked within their individual framings on each track, this is still very much Paul’s album. He sticks close to home: Giles Martin and Ethan Johns — sons of Beatles producer George and classic rock boardsman Glyn, respectively — share a fabled production genealogy, each practically growing up in the studio; Mark Ronson DJ’d Paul’s wedding in addition to introducing Amy Winehouse to the world-at-large; Paul Epworth took the clout gifted him from Adele’s magnificent 21 and discarded McCartney’s initial demos, insisting they start their process from improvisatory scratch.
The most successful are the ones Giles Martin helped bring to fruition, heard to best advantage in the trip-hop soundscape of “Appreciate” and the tender — and slightly schizoid — “Looking At Her.” Martin’s participation in the Cirque du Soleil remix of the Beatles’ catalog gives him an architectural palette that sits well with the forward thrust of New, and a shared vocabulary as well. In “On My Way To Work,” Paul allows himself to pronounce “bus” as a scouser’s boos; he’s fully at home in his surroundings.
There are borrowings galore from the Beatles’ bag of textural enhancement. Ronson turns up the phasing in “Alligator,” and borrows the rhythmic feel of “Got To Get You Into My Life” for “New,” with a few well-chosen oo-oo-oo‘s. “Hosanna,” produced by Johns, resurrects the backward solo beloved of the golden era of magnetic tape. The album thrives on contrast: Within each cut are two or three completely divergent song-sectionals; things never get too comfy or predictable.
If anything has changed since his last collection of self-written songs, 2007′s darker-hued Memory Almost Full, it’s Paul’s frame of mind, now joyfully celebrated in cathartic live performances over the past couple of years. He’s aware of his present-tense legacy, taking pleasure from it and the response it generates in the arenas and stadiums that are his Caverns these days, and clearly is enjoying his victory lap.
Though not a deeply confessional album, or a meditation on the past as might be expected, it is inescapable for an artist with Paul’s history not to reflect on how far he’s come, the road yet traveled. Johns shepherds the album’s most personal moment in “Early Days,” Paul singing into the sweet spot of the microphone his boyhood memories of him and John Lennon. Unadorned by enhancement, the song reveals the burnish and patina on his voice, the actual sound of all those many passing years lending resonance and poignancy: “Like the pictures on the wall of the local record shop/ Eerie noises we were destined to remember/ We willed the thrill to never stop.”
And so it hasn’t.