Paul McCartney’s New is a deeply sad record. I don’t mean that in the sense of it being a disgrace (it’s not) or that it’s mopey or downcast; in fact, the resolute rock-ness of its surface is part of its sadness. The warmth of its critical reception also has a sadness about it, in that beneath all the reviews is an undercurrent of appreciation for a musician whose loss we’re already starting to anticipate and grieve.
Paul McCartney might be the most famous living musician. I wonder if there’s a single person in the western world who hasn’t spent some moment of his or her life thinking about him, or listening to his music. But since 1970, everything he’s done has come with a two-word millstone attached: “former Beatle.” He’s never been able to rid himself of it. It’s not that he’s ever fallen out of fashion, or needed a “comeback”; the largest audience in the short history of popular music has consistently wanted him almost desperately, but what we really want is for him to go back to 1968 and stay there, and maybe bring us all with him. And we refuse to accept anything less than that, or as close as he can come to it. Can you take me back where I came from, brother, can you take me back?
New tries, and when it’s tinged with a genuine reflection, it nearly succeeds. But the harder it tries to reanimate the joys of the past, the less successful it is. At some moments it’s like a trip to a Beatles-themed wax museum, complete with George Martin’s son producing some songs, sessions recorded at Abbey Road, and instrumental textures (and, I’d be willing to bet, actual instruments) you’ll recognize from iconic records I don’t need to name. The melody of the title song, for instance, is an earworm as memorable as anything McCartney's ever written, and the arrangement is one of the record’s most unforced and lighthearted. The problem is that you’d have to forget the Beatles existed to really take this song to your heart. Good luck with that.
There’s been a lot of talk about the production on this album, but it doesn’t feel like anything special or unusual. Manicured, airbrushed, and carefully distressed or buffed to a high gloss even in its dirtiest moments, the songs on New don’t quite sound like a great band playing or an acid trip, but they do sound like an accurate and expensive simulation of both. The drums boom and crunch. Vintage synths buzz and warble. The vocal sounds, probably with an assist from fancy filtering software, shift obediently and overtly in tone and fidelity from verse to chorus in lockstep with the rhythm tracks. The vocals also sound heavily edited, possibly pitch-corrected, and, listening, it’s hard not to see the session files open on the screen, hear the mouse clicks, see the glow reflected in the engineer’s glasses. I’m sure the producers and technicians cared and did their best. I’m sure McCartney did his best; he wouldn’t be credited with playing so many instruments on the album if he didn’t care. This is just what expensive pop, made (even with love) by the pros in the biz, sounds like now. Pros who are trying to build a time machine out of a recording studio.
Neil Young once handled McCartney’s dilemma beautifully, parrying a punter’s insistent requests for “Southern Man” by saying, not unkindly, “It’s a good song, but I’ll tell you what: if you go back to where you were two years ago, I’ll go back to where I was two years ago.”
Change two to 50, and you see the enormity of the task. Who could do it, even with the sincerest of efforts? Most of the uptempo numbers on New fall flat, though they’re almost all hook-encrusted and catchy in the nearly freakish way McCartney’s songs so often are. They didn't work, for me, not because rock music is only for the young — but more that these songs so clearly illustrate that bending yourself to a demand that you remain young forever is a joyless strain that makes real freedom or adventure impossible, and there’s precious little of that here. New acknowledges this subtly, to its credit; listen, and you’ll notice that even the rockers on the album contain a lot of references to cages, locks, zoos, and calls for rescue.
In the acoustic ballad “Early Days,” McCartney seems not to stake so much as plead for a claim to his own memories of his relentlessly documented life. It’s a rough-hewn, even awkward song, hung on a variation on the tune of “Mother Nature’s Son,” and it’s one of two songs on which he’s allowed to sound his age. (Tip of the hat to McCartney and producer Ethan Johns for that.) It also has the single most affecting line on the album: “So many times I had to turn the pain to laughter/just to keep from getting crazed.”
As a lyric this is a clunker, but as a statement of fact it’s very believable. And then he repeats it, and this time when he sings “crazed” he makes it “crayzeeeeeeee," kicking the last note into the rafters in an eerie little falsetto. It really does sound kind of crazy. He plays it for a laugh (just as he says), but it’s a dark, deeply qualified, shaking-your-head laugh. It’s one of few moments on the record, for me, where the light gets in.
McCartney has always had a sort of old-fashioned, even conservative streak. Musically, certainly: John Lennon needled him about his “granny music” — and now, of course, you really can get up and dance to a song he wrote that was a hit before your mother was born — but also personally. Beatles lore places him as the one most willing to pull the band together, to be their public face in good times and bad. One moment that always impressed me was when he went on-air with David Frost, the day after Magical Mystery Tour aired to critical jeers on the BBC, apparently for no other reason than to make his case and take his lumps before all of England. In the high-flying late '60s and '70s, when many of his contemporaries pushed the boundaries of personal excess, McCartney’s life appears to have been resolutely traditional. And the knighthood clearly pleased (and suits) him.
All this seems a little out of tune with the scruffy rock-and-roller of “Helter Skelter,” but it does square with a personality trait that seems just below the surface in him: a slightly antique (and very British) sense of duty to the role he’s been handed in life. It just happens that that role was being one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Day in, day out, whenever he appears, he seems dead-set on being, to the best of his ability, the version of himself that he believes (and not without reason) his worldwide audience wants to see. It’s hard to find a picture of him in which he’s not mugging for the camera, pointing at someone in a crowd, raising his fists above his head, giving a thumbs-up before he plays his old hits once again. But the accumulation of so many thousands of these images makes them seem weirdly opaque, an updated version of a stiff upper lip. Who is this guy? Surely he’s not really having that much fun?
I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to have so many people clamoring to hear songs you’d performed that many times, that you’d written so long ago. In my own experience, a song that’s even a few years old can just turn to sand in your mouth, and you want to spit it out; it just doesn’t feel like you anymore. If you sense that it has meaning for someone else, that helps, but that’s not enough after a while either, and then you’re in the awful position of the lapsed priest, peering out at a congregation looking to you to perform a ritual you no longer believe in. A lot of money would ease the pain. Yes, it would. And decades’ worth of hundreds of thousands of adoring, high-paying fans cheering for you, that would probably help too. But even that must have its limits. What does Paul McCartney think about as he sings “Hey Jude” yet again?
Back to “Early Days.” McCartney throws a bridge in the song that jerks it unexpectedly into the present, a blessing that’s not without ambivalence:
May sweet memories of friends from the past always come to you,
When you look for them
And your inspiration, long may it last
May it come to you time and time again
His shaky delivery of these lines, not addressed to anyone in particular, is strangely moving. Maybe because they come with an implied threat, as in “May you die in your sleep, at a ripe old age, surrounded by your loved ones.” We wish for things, for others and for ourselves, because we don’t know how to make them happen, and because we know they might not. McCartney's not saying if they always have for him.
Paul McCartney has weathered his celebrity with grace for a very long time. The Beatles’ fame, five decades on, now looks like the prototype of the familiar and pervasive celebrity-mania that makes people do very strange things, and the crowds who chased the lads though A Hard Day’s Night to comic effect must have looked more like the zombies of World War Z in real life once the buzz wore off. Paul gets points just for being willing to appear in public at all, as far as I’m concerned. Almost 20 years ago, a college friend of mine spotted him on the street in New York, couldn’t resist trying to say hello, and encountered a chilly McCartney who wasn’t in the mood. “Did you follow me?” he asked, with an edge in his voice. “I don’t like being followed. Put yourself in my shoes.” My friend was crushed, but thinking about it later, realized that if he were Paul McCartney, he wouldn’t want to be followed by a fan in New York either. Just walking down the street has to be an act of some bravery for him, and he probably spends most of his time in a very fancy version of house arrest. I wonder if the recording studio isn't one of the few places on earth where he feels safe and yet still part of the world, and if that in itself doesn't help lure him back again.
A sound I had hoped to hear on New, even if the songs weren’t my bag, is McCartney’s bass. He doesn’t play quite like anyone else, and even my least favorite of his songs can turn up brilliant moments if you’re listening in that frequency range. But on this record, strangely, I can’t quite tell who’s playing. I hope it’s him. The credits suggest that it is, and if so, I hope he’s still enjoying the chase. In Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick’s excellent memoir Here, There and Everywhere, he describes a moment from the Sgt. Pepper sessions in which Paul, sitting with a cigarette tucked into the nut of his Rickenbacker, worked for hours to make the notes speak properly in his cunning, nimble bass line for “With a Little Help From My Friends.” According to Emerick, they overdubbed the bass track after most of the song had been recorded, so that McCartney could fit the part perfectly to the song as it had developed. He was alone in the tracking room of studio 2, late at night, headphones on, head thrown back, concentrating. He was getting it right for the record, for his band, for posterity maybe — but mostly, I hope, for himself. That’s the way I want to think of him. But that’s the devil of it, isn’t it? What I want.