Paul McCartney – “New” (2013)
As a lifelong Beatles and McCartney fan, each new release by Paul is met with a mixture of excitement and slight nervousness as to just how good it is going to be. Over the decades, Paul’s albums have been of varying quality, but even the efforts which didn’t meet with critical acclaim (“Wild Life”, “Press To Play”, “Driving Rain”) aren’t without at least a handful of tracks which make the purchase more than worthwhile. His very best albums (and they’re the majority) are packed full of excellent songs with maybe one or two lesser songs, as if to prove that he’s human like the rest of us. The great news about “New” is that, for me, it falls into the latter category of Paul’s excellent albums with only a track or two that doesn’t quite cut the mustard… and even that is down to personal taste.
As I believe in delayed gratification, I had completely avoided all of the online previews of the tracks from “New”, with the exception of the title track which had been played on the radio and had also gone almost instantly viral within the Beatles community upon release. “New” (the song) had really whetted my appetite for the new album, as it is a classic McCartney composition, one of those rare, beautiful beasts that could have easily have been a Beatles track. However, I have to admit that, when I first heard the album from start to finish, I really didn’t care for it at all. I was bitterly disappointed, really disliked the pop production and the only track that really had something going for it other than the title track was “Appreciate”, one of the more left-field efforts on the album. “Queenie Eye” was undeniably catchy but, on first impressions, there was something just a little too obvious about it. I was unimpressed and didn’t get the instant rush I’d enjoyed from many of his releases in the last twenty years. Then, on the third listen, I started to really enjoy it and every subsequent play revealed something new and wonderful.
Now, on my umpteenth listening session, every song on this album genuinely has something good to offer, much of it is truly great and, in my opinion, it’s his most creatively rich release since 2005’s “Chaos and Creation In The Backyard” which, I feel, is his modern day masterpiece. “New” really isn’t that far behind, though. It also has the commercial sensibilities of 2007’s “Memory Almost Full” and manages to combine the best of both albums whilst also giving nod or two to musical phases from all through Paul’s career. The fact that McCartney has worked with four different producers on this album I believe has helped raise the quality of “New” above his last couple of albums full of original material (“Electric Arguments” and the aforementioned “Memory Almost Full”), both very good releases, but Epworth, Johns, Martin and Ronson have obviously given their individual tracks a lot more attention than a single producer would have and, as such, the fresh ideas and musical detail of each track means that “New” rewards the repeat listener with something pleasing each time and gives a lovely eclectic feel to the whole project.
If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to give the album a track-by-track review, something I wouldn’t normally do for a new release, but this isn’t just another run-of-the-mill release, it’s something new by Paul McCartney, you know, the guy who used to be a Beatle and is arguably the greatest living composer of our time.
“Save Us” – Co-written with and produced by Paul Epworth, this is a cracking opener and a fantastic mature, powerful pop song. The harmonies on the chorus are gorgeous, especially when the song title is sung with that gorgeous minor-chord transition. I wasn’t overly fond of the production of the track, but it has certainly grown on me. (9/10)
“Alligator” – Produced by Mark Ronson and performed by McCartney’s band, this is an absolutely superb song, musically, and reminds me heavily of mid-70s Wings, but the lyrics are a bit hard to swallow at times. Nonsense, vague lyrics aren’t anything new for Macca; some work, others don’t. I think he just about gets away with it here, but it’s a closely-run thing. The creativity of the instrumentation and arrangement, as well as the contrast between the tense verse and the sweet release of the strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus make this a very enjoyable listen. I really love the electric guitar work on this one, too. (9/10)
“On My Way To Work” – This is the first Giles Martin produced song on the album and it’s one that, initially, I found to be quite ordinary. However, I like it immensely and love the way the sound becomes fuller as the track develops, with some tasteful strings embellishing the later verses and concluding with a rather grand finish. I particularly like the detail in the lyrics, the dreamily philosophical nature of the song and the gently optimistic “How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true?”. (9/10)
“Queenie Eye” – Apart from the title track, this is probably the most infuriatingly catchy song on the album. As soon as I heard it, I saw what Paul was trying to do with this and, believe me, I resisted. However, it’s very difficult to resist against something that is absolutely irresistible. It’s simply a fantastic, bouncy, melodic song which has a very “in your face” feel, using a children’s game as a loose metaphor for the tribulations of a relationship. The finished product is even more impressive when you discover that Paul plays everything on the track, apart from drumming duties which are undertaken by producer and co-writer Epworth. (9/10)
“Early Days” – This beautiful song, impeccably produced by Ethan Johns (one of my favourite contemporary producers) is one of the most “stripped down” on the album, with Paul’s voice wonderfully unaltered, giving the song a feeling of honesty and intimacy. Paul has written about his earlier life before with a little bit more of a swagger (“That Was Me”), but this paints a picture of both his relationship with his friends (you assume it’s John, but assumptions are never wise). Paul’s personality shines through as well, turning “pain to laughter” and his love of music. There’s even a bit of a ticking off to those who theorise about his life, telling them that they simply weren’t there. Even the slightly frail high note at the end adds to the sheer beauty of the track. I’d love to hear a whole album with Paul and Ethan. (9/10)
“New” – This is Paul at his melodic, commercial best; an absolute gem of a song, almost perfect in every way. The lyrics, melody and performance are all simply stunning and it’s marvellous that he’s written a love song about the excitement of a new romance which doesn’t stray into over-sentimentality. I also take my hat off to Mark Ronson, not one of my favourite producers by a long way, but he’s captured something very special here. Of course, I’d have loved to have heard what someone like Nigel Godrich could have done with it, but I’ll certainly take this, one of the best things Paul has done, ever. (10/10)
“Appreciate” – This was one of the few tracks I loved from the very first time I heard it. Produced by Paul and Giles, it has a sublime, chilled out vibe during the major-to-minor chord motif verse and an explosive “chorus”, as well as a superb guitar solo by Rusty Anderson closing the song. It feels like pure McCartney, but also has as contemporary a feel as anything released this year. Is he really 71 years old? (9/10)
“Everybody Out There” – Also produced by Paul and Giles, this, to me, is the first slightly disappointing, average song on “New”. The lyrics are a little one-dimensional and, sadly, a little poor. However, it’s a very catchy song and there are several crafty little hooks in it to make it rather enjoyable and certainly not something you’d skip when it came on. All-in-all, a good song, but if a little more thought had been given to the words, it could have been brilliant. (7.5/10)
“Hosanna” – When I first heard this Ethan Johns (and McCartney)-produced track, I quite honestly thought it was a little dull and unremarkable. However, repeated listens gave me a greater appreciation for this little jewel of a song. It reminds me heavily of the work Neil Diamond accomplished with Rick Rubin, simple songs of love, simply presented. There are some nice backward sounds at the end of the track too, which naturally give it a bit of a Beatle flavour. (8/10)
“I Can Bet” – This fantastic, cheeky little rocker is reminiscent of Paul’s work on “Flaming Pie” and, so far, never fails to put a smile on my face when I hear it. It has a great sound, thanks to Giles and Paul’s production; I especially like the electric piano on the verses and the acoustic guitar-driven chorus, together with a lovely bit of Hammond organ on the bridge. Simply put, I love it. (9/10)
“Looking At Her” – Produced by Giles Martin, this one is perhaps my least favourite song on the album, one of Paul’s “isn’t my other half beautiful” type songs. You know, there’s a reason that everybody looks at your wives, Paul, and that’s because they’re married to you. I enjoy the raucous little instrumental break after he sings, “I’m losing my mind”, but that’s about it, I’m afraid. This is the dud on the album, for me. (6/10)
“Road” – This one is a real grower. A moody, sizzling track written by McCartney and Epworth which requires a few plays for the dark lyrics and subtle melodies to sink in. It’s actually rather brilliant, even if it isn’t something you’d generally expect from Paul. (8/10)
“Turned Out” – The last of the Ethan Johns-produced songs. It’s enjoyable enough, has a nice slide guitar on it and an inventive arrangement, but there isn’t anything particularly special about the song itself. A decent, but unremarkable up-tempo number. (7/10)
“Get Me Out Of Here” (bonus track) – This Giles Martin-produced number is a pleasing little bit of skiffle to end the ordinary version of the album. Apart from the “Oh Boy” calls which steer a little too close to the Buddy Holly song for comfort, it’s really quite charming. I could help but smile when Paul, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, proclaims, “I’m a celebrity! Someone get me out of here!”. Very nice, indeed. (7/10)
“Scared” (hidden track) – The hidden track is a strong contender for the title of best song on this album. With little more than Paul’s vocals and piano, this heartbreakingly vulnerable composition brings to mind Elton John at his very best, back in the early seventies. It finishes the album impressively, leaving a slight trace of salt-water in your eyes and a lump in the throat the size of a golf ball. It’s doesn’t exactly have the sheer magnificence of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but it is of the same quality. It’s a remarkable piece and means that “New” both starts and finishes brilliantly, with only one or two minor hiccups on the way. (10/10)
So, that’s what I think. Just one man’s opinion. I find it remarkable that I’m writing this after being severely nonplussed and disappointed about it when I first listened to it, but “New” is genuinely one of the best albums that Paul McCartney has ever put his name to. I sincerely believe that it can be spoken about in the same terms as his greatest work, like “Ram”, “Band On The Run”, “Tug Of War”, “Flowers In The Dirt”, “Flaming Pie” and “Chaos and Creation” (as well as my own personal favourites that haven’t met with perhaps such universal acclaim). All of these very different albums have one common theme – a dazzling, rich creativity and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries. That Paul McCartney still has the hunger inside him to not rest on his laurels and release something that would have been a lot less laborious is incredible. That Paul McCartney can return with an album so (almost wholly) brilliant when his advancing years have been a little too apparent during his live performances, it’s nothing short of amazing. However, people, this is no mere mortal… this is Paul McCartney, the only living legend who has sold millions of records, had dozens of number one songs and albums, who has played on the biggest stages there are… the only living legend who could possibly be described as underrated, but – my word – he really is.