Paul McCartney announced details of a new tour and compilation album last week. You probably missed it, as, let’s be honest, it’s just not news anymore is it? Sure, in our rolling news and social media-dominated landscape, everyone reported it… but nobody had anything to say beyond a copy and paste of the press release. Except us.
We’ve had the idea for ‘Their Last Great Album’ for a while. Ruffle a few underachieving and lazy feathers, you know. But the shrug of the shoulders that greeted the announcement of the latest run of gigs and best-of release from Liverpool’s greatest living songwriter upset us. We’re not annoyed with you or the media, though. Well, we were. But, as thoughts of Instagram feeds and reality TV wrestled for space in expletive-ridden sentences inside our mind, another idea presented itself.
The expressed thought? Paul McCartney has released drivel for over a decade now. Honestly, he has. We hear you: taste is taste and you enjoyed ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ or ‘New’. Well, you shouldn’t have… they’re simply not good enough. They’re not vital. They don’t offer a piece of the writer. And, go on, hum us something from ’em… can you?
We can hum you all sorts from 2005’s ‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’. The last ever release from McCartney on EMI (is that an issue, perhaps?), the album was produced by then-man-of-the-moment Nigel Godrich and the Radiohead and Beck knob-twiddler was arguably the first producer since the late George Martin to challenge the songwriter.
You can tell. McCartney’s personal life was in free fall at the time. His separation from Heather Mills McCartney came less than a year after the album was completed and many of the songs are thought to be about the breakdown of their marriage. Certainly the likes of ‘Friends To Go’, ‘Riding To Vanity Fair’ and ‘Too Much Rain’ appear to reference her. The latter rides in on a gorgeous piano figure and moves along on a typically melancholic McCartney melody – honestly, you can almost see those big brown eyes staring back at you as it rolls along. Macca talked about George Harrison being an influence on ‘Friends To Go’ at the time, but we think that’s a red herring. Listen again as he sings “you never need to worry about me, I’ll be fine on my own, someone else can worry about me, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own”… it’s heartbreaking and leaves you with an image of the older man peering around the corner as his young wife and her friends chat about things that appear alien to him. ‘Riding To Vanity Fair’ suffers from no such anxiety, though. A put-down song that wouldn’t be out of place on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood On the Tracks’, ‘… Vanity Fair’ is the type of tune those who don’t pay attention think McCartney hasn’t written for thirty years: taut, taunting and tumultuous. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it’s the best sounding Macca tune since ‘Coming Up’, back in 1980.
That sound is what we were alluding to when writing about Godrich’s impact on the record. Sessions for the album started with McCartney’s touring band, but the producer sent them home and insisted on working alone with Paul. Months came and went as recording moved to Los Angeles and songs were knocked into shape at the behest of an incessant producer. It’s exactly what McCartney has lacked ever since: somebody to say ‘no’ to him. Look at when he does his best work: when face-to-face with John Lennon (The Beatles, obviously), Elvis Costello (‘Flowers In The Dirt’) or muggers (‘Band On The Run’). In all seriousness, it’s in the face of adversity – and a challenge – that the greatest Scouse songwriter comes up with the goods.
Elsewhere, ‘Follow Me’ is a kind of slowed-down ‘Two Of Us’, carrying another thirty years of pathos and hurt, ‘How Kind Of You’ surely looks back at Linda’s last hours (“I won’t forget how unafraid you were, that long dark night”) and does so with more grace and beauty that at any time since ‘Calico Skies’ and ‘Put It There’ (again, about Linda and his dad, respectively) and ‘Promise To You Girl’ is a quintessential McCartney belter, starting on a minor chord, bouncing along on a boogie woogie piano figure and benefiting from that mean and moody vocal delivery he pulls out on all his best tunes. “Looking through the backyard of my life,” is the line the song starts on and, indeed, it is the cut that gave the album its title. And yet…
The artwork suggests it should have all been so differently presented. A series of abstract line drawings, by artist Brian Clarke, highlight the sleeve artwork and suit the mood of (most of the) music and lyrics perfectly. However, it was a nostalgic image of ‘Our Kid Through Mum’s Net Curtains’, by Mike McCartney, which greeted the public on release day and referenced the ‘backyard’ of said lyric. Sure, the image was (Mc)gear, but it appeared to be a concession to something instantly recognisable, as opposed to a stand-alone piece of work.
In the end, tunes like the ‘Blackbird’-referencing ‘Jenny Wren’, the daft ‘English Tea’ (he always does something to annoy you) and the flag-waving closer, ‘Anyway’, probably stop the record from being considered right up there with his greatest efforts. But, for us, it was the last truly great Paul McCartney record. Yet, we wonder: will there be anything from it on this latest compilation and will he play anything from it on this upcoming tour?
Wait, come back… what do you mean ‘what new compilation and tour’? Let’s go back to the start…
Line drawing courtesy of Brian Clarke