Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Review of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, by Paul McCartney. A Grownup Work from a Genius of Pop

Before I begin my review, I would like to retire a false legend about the Beatles, one that has circulated for a long while. Please bear with me as I address this issue briefly; it will be relevant to the album review.

The myth is this: that John Lennon was the true artist of the Beatles; their leader, and the driving force behind their magic. This legend of course misses the obvious fact that the music of the Beatles was produced by the alchemy of four unique talents, each of whom made an important and significant contribution to the mix. It was the combination of their voices, inspired songwriting, their cohesiveness as a band, and their winning personalities that made the Beatles so special-- even the Beatles themselves often claimed that they felt like four parts of the same person. So their success is not owing to any one of them alone.

Lennon certainly was a natural leader within the group and had an originality that was critical to the Beatle's sound. But his songwriting partner, McCartney, was no less an original, and it's almost certain that Paul took the lead in Beatle creative sessions on songs for which he was the primary originator (and this was probably more than half of their recordings).

Especially in their earlier work, Paul and John's songwriting was a true collaboration. But as time went on, they wrote more as individuals, and would bring in their ideas for the rest of the group to work on. One began to see the contrast in their musical personalities.

It's when we examine their output as solo artists we more readily see the differences (and similarities) in the style and temperament of Lennon vs. McCartney. Paul was clearly the sunnier personality, reflected both in his lyrics and in his more upbeat tunes. The darker Lennon exposed the pain and even neurosis of his psyche, usually with good results musically. One way that they were similar, however, is that both were Romantics [definition of Romanticism: An artistic and intellectual movement originating in Europe in the late 18th century and characterized by a heightened interest in nature, emphasis on the individual's expression of emotion and imagination, departure from the attitudes and forms of classicism, and rebellion against established social rules and conventions].

Perhaps one of the best examples of this Romanticism is that each of them wrote tender, sensitive odes to love/lover (Paul: My Love, Warm and Beautiful and countless others, John: Oh My Love, Woman, and lots more).

Paul was more of a craftsman in his approach to writing and producing, polishing final productions to a sheen; whereas it seems John generally preferred a more raw sound, one he viewed as more spontaneous and authentic. Of the two, Paul was almost certainly the more versatile musician, with a wider scope of styles in his writing and playing. But again, these generalizations are limited, for Paul could be rough and raw-sounding, and John's music shows he was quite able to create smooth, polished pop songs when he chose to.

Paul was much more prolific in his post-Beatles output, even before Lennon died in 1980. It's hard to imagine him taking off five years from releasing any music, as Lennon did in the mid-70's. His ability to generate so many ideas is a mark of Paul's genius-- yet it has at times resulted in his putting out material that is just not up to his own high standards, nor up to the high quality of the Beatles catalog. Whether writing together or separately, these two great writers sparked one another's creativity and raised each other's game, if not through collaboration, then often by competition. So we must retire all the nonsense about Paul being a no-talent, and John the true genius.

With his overflow of musical ideas, McCartney has quite often recorded what sound like "snippets" or even drafts of songs. Sometimes he molds these into great songs, but often he has just released such material "as is", with not great results. I think this is one reason why critics have not always been kind to Paul's solo work. But another, as mentioned above, is the myth that Paul was not as inspired or as edgy a talent as John. Thus Paul's solo career has been underrated by many critics, but I believe that in due time his work will garner the respect and appreciation it deserves as outstanding pop music.

Nevertheless, especially from a lyrical standpoint, it does seems that Paul has always had need of a strong editor; one that he could respect and who would unflinchingly provide honest appraisal of his ideas along with constructive advice. One imagines that John was that kind of writing partner for Paul. But writing without a partner, Paul has sometimes given in to his worst tendency-- sentimentality-- and produced mawkish lyrics or cornball songs. Every artist has idiosyncrasies that contribute to their strength as an artist, but the same strength at extremes turn into weakness. Lennon, for example, had a gift for being bluntly truthful in his lyrics, in a way that seemed to connect with many. Yet songs like "Mother", or more so, "I Found Out", are probably too revealing of the dark side to be "listener-friendly".

Likewise McCartney's gift of generating lots of musical ideas, his seeming perfectionism in the studio, his wonderful gift of melody and his optimistic nature often have combined to produce works of pure pop genius. Yet those same strengths can be liabilities. He has had a tendency either towards overproduction, or the seeming opposite tendency to release half-finished tunes. His tendency to put on his "brave face" has perhaps caused him to be a little too glib and superficial in his lyrics.

But on Chaos and Creation, working with a fresh producer, Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) Paul reins in some of these negative tendencies. The lyrics are more mature and reflective. The spare, tasteful musical arrangements complement the thoughtful quality of the words perfectly. The complex essence of Paul's musical personality emerges: optimism (Fine Line) is juxtaposed with melancholy (Jenny Wren, At the Mercy); nostalgia (English Tea) contrasted with anticipation (Promise To You Girl). Apparently Godwin persuaded Paul to leave out his band and record almost all the parts himself (something Paul has done before but not since McCartney I and II). The result is an album that feels "organic": all the parts relating to one another well. And best of all, McCartney's voice sounds incredible (it's hard to believe he's 63!)-- it's strong and confident on the uptempo tracks, and vulnerable, wise, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful, on the more mellow numbers.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard opens strongly, with Fine Line (also the first single), an up-tempo number that may not grab you on the first listen but hooks you if you listen more than once. It has a good lyric, of more depth than usual for a McCartney pop single. This is followed by "How Kind of You", a moody, mellow piece that reflects on the kindness of a friend (lover?) who was there in a time of need. Like many of the songs on this album, it grows on you with repeated listening.

The beautiful, haunting Jenny Wren is next and features lovely acoustic guitar by Paul, in the tradition of some of his great guitar work on songs such as Blackbird, or Calico Skies. Its minor key and lovely chorus are well-matched to the simple, evocative lyrics. The plaintive solo (by Pedro Eustache, on an instrument called the duduc) is one of the high points of the album. I think this song may join the McCartney canon of greats.

At the Mercy
, to my ears, has classical music elements; there are many interesting twists and turns to follow in this complex tune. The complexity of the tune perhaps makes it less easy to remember, but this is one of the best songs on the album.

McCartney has said that on the next number, Friends to Go, he felt inspired by George Harrison-- and the song does have a "“Travelling Wilburys"” kind of feel. In fact, it is the kind of tune George might have written, in his later career. It's a very likable tune and good tribute to George, if that is what it is meant to be.

English Tea changes the mood again with its opening, which sounds like a passage imported from one of Paul's classical pieces. The song itself seems to be a mild parody of aristocratic life. It reminds me a bit of "Piggies" from the White Album, except where Piggies was an attack on the aristocracy, English Tea shows affection for the old English ways.

Too Much Rain opens with chords that sound familiar (they remind me of the song Lonely People by America). But it turns into another beautiful melody from Paul, and the song has a lovely piano/guitar arrangement. The lyrics may sound trite at times, but the song works anyway. A great pop piece.

On A Certain Softness, McCartney creates a Latin-flavored piece which really works well, due to another well-conceived and executed arrangement. The song adds yet another bit of variety in texture to the overall album. The melody is excellent, if not quite as instantly memorable as some of McCartney's best work along these lines (And I Love Her, for example). Being a fan a Latin-flavored music, this is one of my favorites on the album. Paul'’s harmonies on the middle section are gorgeous.

Riding to Vanity Fair marks perhaps a first for McCartney, in that he reveals bitter feelings, the result of betrayal in friendship. The song's slow, atmospheric quality heightens the feeling of dazed confusion expressed by the words. The orchestration is excellent, recalling the song "Distractions", but is more understated here. I think McCartney should keep writing in this vein, because the lyrics in this song feel more real and more honest than the perfect ideal described in the very next song, Follow Me. One wonders, to what human being could these words be expressed ("I can rely on you to guide me through any situation"? Interestingly, since I write from a Christian point of view, this song, which seems to be about God, should probably appeal to me. But its melody isn't quite as inspired as other songs on this album, and one isn't so sure if there is heartfelt conviction in the song. For these reasons, Follow Me was probably my least favorite track.

Promise to You Girl is another great pop song from McCartney, inserting a needed burst of energy into this mostly mellow album. Paul, "looking through the “backyard of my life"”, realizes it's "“time to sweep the fallen leaves away"”. The song expresses the idea of taking stock and looking to the future with a determination to leave behind a positive mark on this world. And it does so with a catchy, fun tune that is typical Paul. This would be a good choice for the next single.

On This Never Happened Before Paul has crafted yet another gorgeous love song, with chord changes reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. In an interview, Paul relates how he lent out the song, prior to its official release, to a couple getting married (very sweet).

The album closes with a pair of love songs. Like Too Much Rain, Anyway also opens with a familiar-sounding chord progression (remember "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield?). Still, Paul's song veers into much different musical territory after that. The song is a plea for lovers to re-unite (it feels perhaps as if they have been parted by a quarrel). But the narrator believes that their love is "strong enough to take it on the chin" and to "cure each others sorrow". He waits for her to "make that call", "anyway" she can. Both This Never Happened Before and Anyway could be criticized for their simplistic lyrics, but the music expresses emotional nuances that fills in what the words do not. Perhaps if the words were more complex, they might clash with the musical expression of emotion.

Finally, there is a instrumental jam that follows the last song, Anyway, that has points of interest, although it is not very cohesive. It sounds like three different musical passages strung together, but the best of these passages is the piano section.

If you're planning on purchasing the album, I'd strongly recommend buying the Special Edition version, which includes along with the CD an entertaining and informative 50 minute DVD, in which Paul talks about the making of Chaos and Creation.

Chaos and Creation is a grownup work from an artist who obviously still has lots of creative juices flowing. Some fans and critics may lament the lack of "rockers" on this album, but it seems Paul's latest batch of inspiration just didn't include those types of songs. Working with a strong producer was definitely a good move for Paul: this is a thoughtful, well-crafted album with no "clunkers", as have appeared on previous albums. Paul no longer needs to stake his reputation on the body of work he created with the Beatles, as wonderful as that body of work was. His body of work as a solo artist, and with Wings, is equally impressive. It remains to be seen whether or not this album contains songs that will live up to very high standards set by all of Paul's past work, to become his new classics. Still, McCartney is a true genius of pop, and he can (and should) hold his head up high with this album.


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