New, the 24th and latest studio album by Paul McCartney, has taken the critical sphere by some amount of surprise: frankly, the 71-year-old ex-Beatle has no right making records this eminently enjoyable in 2013. Combining the whimsy of 2012's Kisses on the Bottom with sly hints of Sgt. Pepper's psychedelia, New—like the best of McCartney's work—feels comfortably familiar without settling into complacency. And, as most reviewers have pointed out, it benefits from the skills of four far younger producers, none of whom was born when The Beatles started out.
It won't upend your view of McCartney's basic strengths or pack the catharsis of the best of Lennon's solo work. But it doesn't have to. It's still a minor triumph. Here are four reasons why.
He's assembled his own team of rivals—sort of.
Losing Beatles producer George Martin, who's now retired, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Macca: it forced him to hunt down new talent to inject some life into his songs. For 2005's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard he notably snagged Radiohead knob-twiddler Nigel Godrich. This time he tried out four producers and, instead of choosing his favorite, "decided that I loved them all and didn't want to choose one of them." The lineup: Mark Ronson, George Martin's son Giles Martin, Adele producer Paul Epworth, and Kings of Leon/Kaiser Chiefs producer Ethan Johns.
As The Washington Post's Bill Friskics-Warren observes, the record "was made with four producers, each of whom has succeeded in challenging him and getting him to take risks"—and each in his own distinct way.
He's left the schmaltz behind.
You'll spot reviews referring to New as "McCartney’s first full set of original material in six years," or some variation thereof. That's because the Beatle's actual last release was 2012's quickly forgotten Kisses on the Bottom, a set of old-timey pop and jazz covers so schmaltzy, Starbucks saw fit to release it on its own Hear Music label.
Which is all fine and good and surely delighted the octogenarian corner of McCartney's fanbase; the point, of course, is that the singer's songwriting has always been rooted in that sort of thing. But New is wise to push beyond the cheese factor and focus on McCartney's pop smarts rather than his considerable charm. Sure, tracks like "Queenie Eye" and "New" turn the whimsy up to ten, but it's the writing that counts.
He's totally in love.
Much has been made of the succinct album title. There's nothing particularly "new" about the stylistic tricks at play here, but there is a new woman in McCartney's life: Nancy Shevell, whom he married in 2011 following his divorce from Heather Mills. That theme crops up throughout New, notably on the bouncy "Alligator" ("Could you be that person for me? / Would you feel right setting me free?") and the sugary title track ("You came along / And made my life a song / One lucky day / You Came Along / Just in time").
And the singer openly admits the source of his inspiration: "This is a happy period in my life, having a new woman," he told BBC, "so you get new songs when you get a new woman." For Macca, apparently, it's actually that simple.
He's in a nostalgic mood (but not too nostalgic).
The wistful "Early Days" finds McCartney waxing nostalgic about his halcyon, pre-success days with Lennon, when they had "two guitars across our back," "seeking someone who would listen to the music / That we were writing down at home." But, folksy melody aside, it's not a saccharine, hallmark sort of nostalgic—it's pointed and defensive, insisting: "They can't take it from me if they try / I lived through those early days." Explaining the song's genesis to NPR, McCartney said:
There's so much being written [about] the early Beatles period, and even pre-Beatles period. And people will say, "Oh, he did that because that, and that happened because of that." And I'll be reading and think, "Well, that didn't happen" and, "That's not why I did that." Like anyone's history, you remember what went down better than people who weren't there.
That twinge of bitterness is key to the song—and to the production decisions Ethan Johns makes. The producer "has stripped away all the artificial sweeteners and busy arrangements," The New Yorker notes, "and exposed McCartney’s voice for what it really is these days: frail and aged."
Another triumph rings through in a similarly candid quiet break on "Queenie Eye." Sings McCartney, "It's a long way to the finish when you've never been before / I was nervous, but I did it / Now I'm going back for more." For a singer who can often enough seem like a power-pop factory unto himself, vulnerability suits McCartney surprisingly well.
All photos: Associated Press