Thursday, 27 November 2008
Paul McCartney/The Fireman "Electric Arguments" (2008) (News, Views and Music 13A, Revised 2014)
The Fireman (aka Paul McCartney and Youth) “Electric Arguments” (EMI)
'Ullo, this is the Fireman here, talking to you from your 'fire' place - isn't it grate?! People often ask me - do I smoke? The answer is yes - but only when I'm on fire! They also ask me what I have for breakfast: hmm strawberries, ships, oceans, forests, the usual. Hmm what's that smoking? A Spice Girls CD? I doubt it! It must be Alan's Album Archives mascot Max The Singing Dog, I mean - he's hot stuff isn't he? Ho-hum. Well that makes sense. You see, this record is a chance to extinguish who I am, just a warm place inside your head! No no Sam I ain't no anagram, I'm a dog not a God and this album is 'rife' with 'fire' and, erm, 'erif' whatever that may be. (Repeat ad infinitum for about sixteen hours of webchat)
After two 'is it? isn't it?' records, Paul McCartney finally came clean that he was indeed 'The Fireman' (with producer Youth his chief commander), producer of two ambient dance records in the 1990s ignored by all but curious Beatle fans who'd heard rumours and recognised a couple of very McCartneyesque melodies lurking across the LPs. Clearly a relative of Percy 'Thrills' Thrillington (maybe even Sgt Pepper), 'The Fireman' was an opportunity for Paul to go beyond what his fans would have been expecting from him, with a record that played to Paul's musical strengths: his speed, his skill at improvisation and his sheer innate musical ability. For unlike his recent records 'Chaos and Creation' and 'Memory Almost Full' (re-shaped and re-moulded until they sounded 'old', with all the life sucked out of them), 'Electric Arguments' is an almost entirely 'improvised' album, with the 'band' consisting of lots of McCartneys overdubbed on top of each other, working towards a key or a rhythm suggested by producer Youth. Compared to the year or so spent slogging away on each of the last two albums, every single track on 'Electric Arguments' was recorded in a day, often in an afternoon, across a mere fortnight (making this is the 'quickest' McCartrney record of this length since 'Wildlife'). The results aren't to everyone's tastes ('Arguments' is weirder than the average McCartney LP) but are the more interesting swing of McCartney's typically Geminian pendulum after years in the mainstream and prove, for the first time in a decade or more, that there's more to Paul's art than most a nice tune and a silly lyric. The best McCartney album in an awfully long time, 'Electric Arguments' finally got Paul some credibility back (which being Paul he then promptly lost with his next release: an album of crooning standards!) The result is an album that smoulders for most of the first half, as you adjust yourself to Macca’s new sound, but then catches fire for most of the middle and burns the house down by the end. It won’t sit up and grab you the way that some McCartney albums do, but it will draw you in once you get past the shock of the 'new' sound.
We said in our review for ‘Press To Play’ that it was crying shame that Macca got pilloried for experimenting with his sound, as that album’s entertaining attempts to re-style Paul as a contemporary pioneer rather than a traditionalist might have changed his reputation forever if taken in the right spirit. Sadly that record's cool reception seemed to drain Sir Paul of the need to step outside the comfortable little box he had unwittingly made for himself as a mainstream singer-songwriter and led to 20 years of albums that may have been good but rarely showed what Paul could really do when pushed. Before the first Fireman album came out ten years or so ago, I never thought I’d ever get to hear a McCartney album like this again – bold, daring, mischievous, breaking boundaries with every turn and seemingly wilfully destroying our idea of who we think Paul McCartney is. Just like his first solo album ‘McCartney’ (1970) and the overlooked ‘McCartney II’ (1980), this album is a real fan divide, featuring Paul playing everything and pushing the envelope often further than it will comfortably go (the old Beatle joke that one day Paul was going to push his audience with an avant garde solo album called 'Paul McCartney goes too far' has now become a trilogy to match John and Yoko's 'Unfinished Music' releases, albeit far more entertaining). Like many a McCartney release, it left many fans split down the middle. The devoted fans who’ve always known about McCartney’s wide-spanning talents will lap it up and wonder why Macca has never gone whole-hog into improvisation like this before; the general public will scratch their heads and ask why there’s no ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Yesterday’ here to savour.
However for me what many fans missed is that the closest album to this in Macca’s discography is ‘Driving Rain’ (2001), an overlooked and often troubled album that had several sketchy-but-nice ditties hidden away in it and similarly ended with a made-up 10 minute magnum opus. That makes sense because it's effectively the closing 'bookend' to Driving Rain's 'entry' and both albums are about loss and grief tinged with hope for better days ahead. 'Driving Rain' was of course written for Linda, being the first 'proper' record made after her death (and the first one the McCartneys hadn't sat down and planned together) but the grief of losing a soulmate was tinged with the breath of life Heather Mills had brought into Paul's life. This album is of course the other extreme: recorded during Paul's drawn-out much-discussed divorce from Heather (with neither aside coming out that well from the court-case, although thanks to some hi-jinks with a bottle of water thrown at Paul's attorneys, Heather came off worse). The record starts with the single angriest song in the McCartney canon (one that would eat previous songs 'Angry' and 'I've Had Enough' for breakfast!), a Lennon primal screamer about betrayal that features Paul pushed right to his limits. Like 'Ram' (which opened with the Lennon taunting 'Too Many People') and 'Driving Rain' (which opened with 'Lonely Road') it's notable that Paul should write with what is foremost on his mind and a feeling of helplessness and rage that doesn't bubble to the surface in his art that often. However like those records, once that opening song is out the way 'Electric Arguments settles down after getting that out of its system, with happier songs about Paul's growing friendship with Nancy Shevell (a mutual friend of his and Linda's that will become his third wife in 2011), although like 'Ram' and 'Driving Rain' this album still bares it's teeth from time to time.
Paul named this record after a line from a poem by Allen Ginsburg, one of his favourite poets, 'From Kansas City to St Louis' and claimed that he chose the line because he liked it rather than any actual significance to the record (Ginsburg even inscribed a dedication to Paul in a book of 'selected verse' named 'TV Baby Poems' that contained this poem, which was presented by Paul to a charity auction in 1978). However you can see why this poem would have appealed to the more nostalgic McCartney we've known ever since 'The Beatles Anthology' was commissioned in 1995. The most famous song about 'Kansas City' was the Little Richard song that - along with 'Lucille' 'Hound-dog' and 'Twenty Flight Rock' - got Paul into rock and roll in the first place and the one that he was still singing every so often at his live shows, forever associated with him after the performance on 'Beatles For Sale'. St Louis was where he lived for a time with Heather Mills and did a lot of work for charity in the wake of the natural disasters that hit that city in the first half of the 2000s. While Paul didn't make the 'physical' journey between the two, he clearly identified with the psychological one. The idea of 'arguments' were in the air too after the by now very public and very Un-McCartney rows in court and all over the media, while this album could be considered an 'argument' over whether Paul should stay in his usual musical persona or branch out (with the word 'electric' not far from the 'electronic' sound of this album).
Many people wondered why Paul decided to stick this album out under his ‘Fireman’ pseudonym, even though this album is far more like a ‘proper’ McCartney album than his two previous collaborations with producer Youth. The answer seems to be that it was simply more 'fun' that way, with McCartney using a persona - one who isn't enecessaroly well loved and adored by millions, without all the baggage that came of being one of the world's most recognised persons (just look at the fun Macca had getting into character on any of the 'web-chats'# to promote this album, all of which featured Paul in a 'Lennon' ish mask which he never took off and was written in cryptic comments (although Paul couldn't resist a 'thumbs up' to camera at the end of each 'event which rather gave the game away!) Recording incognito (sort of) must hold a certain fascination for the most famous living musician on the planet and it’s easy to see why – in this post-Heather Mills, post-tabloid frenzy phase of his long career – Macca wants to return to his ‘Sgt Peppers’ concept and ‘become’ some other musician, one who doesn’t have some of the most popular songs of modern times hanging like a millstone round his neck. (To quote the front cover – ‘The fireman is no nickname, just a warm place in the head’). The earlier Fireman albums – ‘Rushes’ (1997) and ‘Liverpool Collage’ (1999) – did the job and it was only avid Beatles fans who believed muttered rumours who ever knew that these albums did feature McCartney. In truth, though, from the few extracts I know, these albums could have been by anybody – crunching vegetables set to tape loops and spacey keyboard instrumentals, with only the odd so obviously McCartneyesque tune I'd have also believed this was an album by one of the Rutles. This is, you see, the first time McCartney can be heard actually singing on a Fireman record and the first to be given lyrics: a conscious statement, then, that Paul would 'step out' of his public image in the public eye (it was only in the lead-up to this album that Paul made any claim to the earlier Fireman records at all). This record actually disappointed a handful of people who'd known those Fireman records, feeling that Paul had passed on the 'spacey' feel of both hypnotic recordings. But this third record is far better than either of them, with enough spacey ambient melodies of its own but also a bit of structure to them, while adding lyrics makes this record a braver statement than either of these first two records. Throughout McCartney stays true to the 'Fireman' principle of pretending to be somebody else: few hearing the grunts of the opening track or the deep growl of 'Traveling Light' would guess at this being McCartney still had his name not been on the sleeve, while the most McCartneyesque songs here (the happy go lucky ones like 'Sun Is Shining' and 'Highway') sound all the better for their unusual backing tracks.
Paul admitted in interviews for this record that he'd grown tired of making recording a 'lengthy' process and adopted Neil Young's 'first thought best thought' policy to see if it worked for him. This is of course a notoriously hard thing to do, especially for a musician with nothing to prove and no practical interest in whether a record sells or not (Beatle royalties alone mean Paul need never record another note). Now, record-the-same-time-as-your-muse-hits–you albums have always been a mixed blessing. Just look at the career of his fellow AAA artist Neil Young, whose recorded-in-a-week albums have provided him with unarguable career highs (‘Tonight’s The Night’, ‘Sleeps With Angels’) and some of his most woeful career lows (‘Broken Arrow’, ‘Greendale’). But Paul is a prime candidate for the working process of being kept on his toes: that's how both Lennon and Elvis Costello have gone on record as saying that Paul is at his best, before his 'perfectionism' gets in the way ('Hey Jude' for instance, long regarded as one of Paul's greatest lyrics, was 'blocked in' while he was meant to think of something else). Fans have always known that melodies seem to fall out of Macca with ridiculous ease and McCartney’s subconscious has always been one of the hardest-working in rock – providing him with no less than two fully formed songs in his sleep (‘Yesterday’ and ‘No Values’) – and his recent albums have been heading towards string-of-consciousness lyrics rather than his traditional ‘story-songs’ for a while now. While only a handful of the melodies here approach his best work – and none of the lyrics, fragmented as they are, ever comes close – the fact that these songs were recorded at the rate of one a day shows what a fertile sub-conscious McCartney still has. What's more this album sounds like an artist engaging with his craft again: too many McCartney albums sound tired because their creator sounds tired ('Chaos and Creation' is the sound of a man whose toured the world more times than most politicians and doesn't want to do this for a living anymore). But this 'Fireman' element of McCartney sounds inspired, lively, bouncy - the way he always used to sound before the weight of The Beatles split, Wings and various dramas got in the way. 'Electric Arguments' was compared on release to a Beatles album. That's not really true - 'Flaming Pie' is the most obviously 'Beatley' album in Paul's discography, which is precisely why it falls so flat (he's done all this stuff before when inspired, so why bother recycling it now he's tired?) But by being the first McCartney album since 'Press To Play' to make fans actively scratch their heads (while still sounding like songs), 'Electric Arguments' is like a 'Beatles' album - it goes somewhere new and has fun doing so. And best of all – unlike the last four or five albums – most of the songs here sound decidedly like McCartney pieces, without the curse of trying to replicate a specific track from Paul’s illustrious past (which is where he's been slipping up for most of the 21st century so far).
Not that the Fireman projects are true solo works, in the way that 'McCartney' and 'McCartney II' were. Macca has a truly supportive and sympathetic collaborator again – unlike recent producers Nigel Godrich and David Kahne, Youth 'understands' McCartney. The general gist we can gather from interviews is that the former argued too much and tried to take too much control, while the latter left Paul alone to get on with it. Macca needs someone a bit in the middle: someone who can push him and inspire him, bouncing ideas around with him, without telling him what to do (a bit like George Martin used to do, a helping hand when the band got stuck). Youth is Paul's first collaborator in a long long time who understands Paul's heritage - and his need to escape it to produce his best. Throughout he does his best to embellish McCartney’s ideas, rather than drown them out or argue with him over the content of his songs; less worried about making an album that has to live up to Macca’s great reputation that canvassing the many untapped talents Paul still has in the here and now. You have to say that this on-the-edge-of-the-seat have-to-get-it-done-by-midnight experiment has really put the shine back into McCartney’s creative soul. For like 'Sgt Pepper' Paul is free to be whoever he wants to be without constraints: want to scream and yell? Fine. Want to add a loopy instrumental section with Hawaiian guitar for a few minutes? No problem. If it doesn't work we can always throw it away and start again (again, very much in the Beatles tradition after listening to the Anthology tapes and bootlegs).
Of course, not everything here works – there’s yet to be a solo McCartney album that doesn’t put a foot wrong somewhere. The much-talked about opener ‘Nothing Too Much, Just Out Of Sight’ is the most uncharacteristic song here and seems wilfully designed to challenge the listener from the beginning, with Macca’s rich and wide-ranging vocals restricted to a scream for the most part. Rarely for this album, the lyrics do tell a kind of story, but this tale of being let down by somebody close who doesn’t ‘have any manners’ doesn’t add much to what we already knew about the Macca-Heather Mills feud other than it used to be good but then went bad very quickly and its talk of ‘betrayal’ is moving but not really that revealing. ‘Light From Your Lighthouse’, meanwhile, sounds like one of those toe-curlingly bad country spoofs the Rolling Stones used to insist on putting on every album, which is a shame as the lyrics are actually among the best here. Closer ‘Don’t Stop Running’ also goes slightly too far in its determination to end this most askew Macca album of recent times on a daring note and alas its use of long pauses, guitar loops and a section of the song played backwards owes less to the psychedelic sixties than it does to 1980s new age music. The fact that these melodies are literally picked out at random (with Youth offering a key or a chord or an instrument with limited notes as a starting point) means that this album is never going to be as perfectly orchestrated as past McCartney classics - but that's somehow freeing in itself, with Paul forced to rely on his adventurousness for once instead of a tried and trusted regime that's served him well in the past. Fans know that melodies always fall out of Paul whenever he needs them, but this shake-up means we get a few melodies that sound quite un-McCartney-ish at times, such as that opening track for instance. There's also perhaps one too many experiments that stop the album from seeming complete and rounded, but like McCartney and McCartney II that also adds to the experience: somehow this album would be a lot less fun if it was 'perfect'. In other words, even this album's weaknesses are strengths in a way.
By returning to that spirit of adventure that marked out the Beatles years, rather than the melodies or ideas directly 'stolen' (as per 'Flaming Awful Pie' and 'Chaos In The Backyard and In My Head') Paul also creates his most essentially 'Beatley' album in a while - particularly the band's more adventurous middle years of 1966-67. The simplistic ‘Two Magpies’ has all the charm (if not the depth) of ‘Blackbird’ in a way that direct replica ‘Jenny Wren’ from 2005 could never have had in a million years. ‘Travelling Light’ sounds like a ‘White Album’ leftover, the sort of things the Beatles might have sung around the Maharishi’s campfire, lyrically unsure whether this new ‘phase’ is a temporary development or the be all and end all of a long career (thankfully the song works equally well as both). ‘Dance Til’ We’re High’ is the most exuberant and commercial Macca’s been for ages too – it has more bounce and believability in its middle eight than the clunky last single ‘Dance Tonight’ could manage in three minutes, despite breaking far more rules along the way. The rare use of guitars on this album soar up to the heavens while strings bring the tracks down to earth, surrounded by ‘bells ringing out together’ and some of the best background harmonies Macca’s put together this side of Wings. Listen out too for the opening and closing of ‘Universal Here, Everlasting Now’ – fans of McCartney’s album ‘Tug Of War’ will recognise this riff as the short but pretty linking piece ‘Be What You See’ – I’ve been waiting to hear the rest of the song for 26 years and the song hasn’t let me down! ‘Lifelong Passion’ and ‘Is This Love?’ may well be the best of the bunch, slow ambient songs without much going on in either of them but perfectly judged between atmospherics and subtlety. ‘Lifelong Passion’ is one of Macca’s downright prettiest songs in years, a song in the monochromatic mould of ‘Winter Rose’ and ‘Footprints’ mould that I’ve already harked on about several times in this website already. As for ‘Is This Love?’ there isn’t much going on at all, just a fragile little keyboard at the heart of the song, surrounded by very modern-sounding synthesisers and very traditional sounding panpipes. They’re both exactly the sort of thing George Harrison would have put together for the ‘Wonderwall’ film soundtrack, had that movie come out in the 90s rather than the 60s – West meets East, with panpipes, sitars and soaring keyboards set off by growling Macca vocals and the emphasis very much on creating a believable atmosphere. Moody Blues meets Capercaillie, in short, and all the better for it.
You may have noticed that, unlike our usual reviews, we haven't really discussed a 'theme'. That's because, generally speaking, there isn't one: you could make a stab at one about losing Heather (which is clearly what 'Nothing Too Much, Just Outtasite' is all about, with 'Two Magpies' perhaps a last song about their partnership and 'Is This Love?' a questioning of their suitability). But love, whether falling in it or losing it, has always been such a McCartney theme that 'Electric Arguments' is actually quite radical in how little time it spends on 'silly love songs'. Moreover the way that these songs were made - daily, based around whatever was going through Paul's head at the time - means that a lot of these lyrics are closer to stream-of-consciousness than fully thought out ideas and the only real link between them all is Paul McCartney's subconscious during a fortnight in 2009. However one thing shines through this album louder than ever before, despite being common to most McCartney records: optimism. 'Sun Is Shining' is the belated sequel to 'Every Night', a tired and weary put-upon man finding the strength to 'get up' and finding the beauty in the world afresh as he does so. 'Dance Till We're High' imagines a future romance with the same passion and lust as 'I Saw Her Standing There' 45 years earlier. 'Lifelong Passion' is a pristine McCartney love song, caught between hope and self-doubt. 'Sing The Changes' admits that life has been tough, but knows that a dark time is coming to an end and hopes a brighter future is about to arrive. Even the sign of 'Two Magpies' brings the narrator joy, a 'cosmic' sign he won't always be alone (contrast with 'Single Pigeon' from 'Red Rose Speedway'). 'Highway' is a 'Long and Winding Road' where the very length of the road left to travel makes the narrator thrilled, not saddened (or scared as he will be during 2012's 'Road'). 'Electric Arguments' might start in the pit of despair, but as the record gets going it gets lighter and airier, ready to embrace the future in whatever form it takes. And that, more than anything else, makes 'Electric Arguments' a McCartney album, whatever the name credit on the sleeve says.
Overall, then, 'Electric Arguments' is the record Paul needed to make, capturing him at a vulnerable and 'open' moment in his life and at just the moment when his life seemed to be taking an upswing for the better (could it be that simply the process of making this album - and channelling all the restrictions of the past decade of being on 'auto-pilot' helped him?) It will never be the sort of record that's a favourite with everybody and quite a lot of fans actually asked for Paul to go back to the 'Chaos and Creation' way of making records they could understand (nothing new of course; people said this after 'Sgt Peppers' too, remember - The Beatle Book magazine's letters page are full of fans asking for records like the 'good old days'). But I prefer to hear Paul like this: inspired, creative and pioneering, writing for himself rather than his fans and using that wonderful gift of spontaneous musicality the way it should always have been used, before worry deadlines and Pauk's high reputation got in the way of diluting it. There's no argument from me: 'Electric Arguments' is the side of Paul I like best. The good news is that, while Paul inevitably swung back the other way on his next few releases (starting with the 'Kisses On The Bottom' album of standards - something no one was expecting after this!) even his mainstream albums have a little of the kick and verve of this record: 'New' for instance is an only slightly softer version of this record despite having the 'McCartney' name...
I've often wondered what a McCartney version of the 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' album might have sounded like. McCartney never had the sudden explosions in his character that Lennon did and his first re-action to problems and people being rude to him was to make friends (ie patching up whatever hole Lennon had just got them into). However you can't be as discussed, dissected and disowned as often and as nastily as Paul has so often been (especially since the shocking manner of Lennon's death unfairly yet inevitably made John the 'saviour' of the Beatles and McCartney the 'hanger-on' in many 'outsiders' eyes - the sort of people who assumed that The Beatles had to have a 'leader' rather than being democracy at its finest) without that hurting you at some point. Dismissed by some people as possessing no 'soul' next to Lennon, McCartney's emotions simply run deeper and don't come to the surface very often - but when they do the results are spectacular. 'Nothing Too Much Just Outta Site', the opening track on this album, is a case in point: a screaming howl of pain that's the McCartney equivalent of 'Mother' with a touch of 'Don't Let Me Down'. 'I thought you knew - the last thing to do was to try to betray me!' McCartney howls, surely at ex-wife Heather Mills, complaining that how can he forget her and move on - he's infatuated, she insists she's nothing too much, but he still thinks she's 'outtasite!' A harrowing middle eight gets even scarier and demented, remembering the night when she claimed to 'love' him: 'I can remember - why did you take me there?' Throughout the song a wowy, lopsided riff seems to bring the narrator his knees while reflecting the churning of the once-solid ground underneath him, leaving him reeling. Like 'Lonely Road' before it, this is a dangerous path, all the scarier because the narrator has been down it before and knows how dark the path gets before it ends. Throughout McCartney excels by trying to deliver something he's never done before, letting himself go 'Helter Skelter' style, with no inhibitions, ending the song with an angry snarl that sounds more like the cry of a wounded animal than a national institutions. The guitar work too (all played by McCartney, remember, along with the clattering powerful drumming and spooky harmonica) is impressively heavy and quite unlike anything Macca has delivered before, like slowed down psychedelia with wailing feedback drawn out to their limits. However, even in grief there remains a difference between Lennon and McCartney: while you could come to 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' knowing nothing about the Lennon story and come away with a detailed knowledge of Lennon's childhood and teenage years, McCartney reveals nothing except how deeply he's wounded. There's nothing really to tie this song to Heather Mills at all except the timing - no details are given to us, nothing is really explained. A shocking edit at 2:30 (in the middle of the line 'nothing too...a hurt me', making it nonsensical) suggests that something was removed: was this passage of the song too revealing? If so, why make it so obvious, as if to let us know it was 'there'? (The mix could easily have just cut back to the chorus again). While this is the sound of McCartney letting fly with emotions - and a highly impressive sound it is too - it's as if he's still too afraid to go all the way and reveal everything and wants us to know that fact. This alone prevents 'Nothing Too Much' from being the greatest McCartney song in a decade; that said it's still in the top quarter, a riveting emotional performance that gets this album off to a flying start.
'Two Magpies' starts with the scratchy sound of a demo tape before getting going, instantly putting us in the frame of mind of 'Driving Rain' (which used that trick several times, not least with its scratchy packaging shot with a grainy digital watch). That's apt because this simple improvised song is right back at the same place Paul was in a decade earlier: so desperately lonely he's pleading for love and taking anything nature has to offer him as a sign of future happiness. Birds have always been a 'lucky talisman' for McCartney and by now he's written a whole flock of them ('Blackbird' 'Single Pigeon' 'Bluebird' 'Jenny Wren' etc). Legend has it that when Linda was ill she promised to come back and give Paul 'a sign' that all was well in the afterlife: some reporters have this as a flock of birds suddenly arriving at Paul's Mull Of Kintyre estate, others a 'feather' left mysteriously in a special place (other reports have this happening to Yoko after Lennon died as well). This simple song, based around the old English nursery rhyme of counting magpies, which almost always flock in pairs ('One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy') sounds like a man looking for signs, his sub-conscious - put on the spot by Youth - returning to a theme that's been running round his head: not just 'is there life after death?' but 'will I ever be happy?' (possibly even 'am I right to fancy one of your best friends?' as Paul first met Nancy through Linda). Typically, even in doubt McCartney manages to be 'happy', moving on from Heather 'content to cry but no more to lie' to himself and to her, reflecting that the 'sign' gives him the strength to 'face down fear'. A nice backing track features the double bass once played on the session for 'Heartbreak Hotel' (and bought by Linda for her husband's birthday one year in the 1970s: another link to her that might have set his sub-conscious off in this direction) and the laughter of his then five-year-old daughter Beatrice, again like the Wings days when all sorts of childhood noises found their way on tape. In typical McCartney style, everything has changed and yet nothing has - we're right back where he was first five and then 45 years ago when Paul broke up with Jane Asher. As a song, though, this is sketchy stuff that's the one song on this album that would have benefitted from a bit more work and a bit less time pressure, a nice song never really getting going.
'Sing The Changes', the album's near-hit single, is very McCartney too. Like 'Coming Up' this song promises change and portrays how wonderful it's going to be when it gets here. While the lyrics make little sense on their own (and are clearly made up to short order to go along with the pretty riff) certain phrases keep cropping up: 'see the changes - draw the picture' 'hear the choir in the thunder' 'a sense of childlike wonder' 'every ladder leads to Heaven'. Taken together they portray a nicely surreal image of weather about to change, that feeling in the air when something wonderful is about to happen. The title is, of course, another McCartney pun: 'changes' are what musicians call chord 'changes' and Stephen Stills, for one, often uses them in his lyrics to reflect the 'changes' in his life - the switch of keys he's had to navigate in his personal life to write the song. This song has particularly big wide huge jumps between keys, the song never quite going where you expect, all tied together thanks to a big thick woolly blanket of production effects - which makes sense given the wide jumps McCartney had made since his last LP. Once again his guitar-work and drumming is top-notch, right at the heart of the song despite the fact that this track would have been built up piece-meal. I do, however, have no idea what the curious and nearly inaudible ending is all about ('One day I passed a jogger, he said 'I can't stop - big time...').
'Travelling Light' is a moody song featuring Paul at his deepest, in both senses of the word. A gravelly vocal takes us on a mystical journey that finds Macca at his most spiritual: his spirit double passes everywhere around the world and perhaps other worlds, in search of something or someone. Linda is surely at the heart of this song which has faint similarities to 'This One'. Another nice backing track is dominated by flute (or at least a mellotron version of it), putting back us in the frame of mind of one of Paul's greatest songs 'The Fool On The Hill'; while not in the same league this song about the mysteries of life is better than average. Some nice sound effects from rattled bottles and a grand piano part add to the atmosphere. Interestingly the spirit guide is another bird - a 'bluebird' - tying back in with 'Two Magpies' and suggesting that 'Bluebird' (from 'Band On The Run') was a deeper song than I ever gave it credit for (in the 'Yellow Submarine' film, too, the Chief Blue Meany's cousin is 'the bluebird of happiness' - bet those two had fun at family get-togethers!)
'Highway' picks up the theme of travel but in an 'earthier' sense and returns to another favourite McCartney theme: life as a destination with several stop-off points. By my reckoning this is the earliest mention in song of third wife Nancy (unless you count a bit of premonition in 'Rocky Raccoon' where everyone knew the heroine 'as Nancy'!), with the line 'What she's got is what she needs and who she loves is me'. Interestingly Paul starts the song 'on the run' (as in 'Band on the...') and 'looking like a wreck', a fugitive in search of safe harbour: an accurate description of how he must have felt during the Heather Mills divorce case (without many 'bad' things to say about McCartey's behaviour, most turned to his dress-code, including that hoary old story about him still wearing the warm coat he bought in an Oxfam shop in 1970 and which appears on the back sleeve of the 'McCartney' LP in 1970, where daughter Mary once fitted inside as a baby). A bluesy riff dominated by pianos is the sort of thing that might have sounded ordinary on other McCartney albums with its quick-stepping rhymes and talking conversational style (see the title track of 'Flaming Pie' for similar fluff), but a nice production makes the most of the song, with a fun harmonica riff, lots of echo even Phil Spector would think twice about using and lots of variation along the way that keeps things moving. 'Highway' isn't the best song on the album by a long way, but it may well sound the best, making good use of McCartney's sudden switches of thought and embracing of new ideas.
'Light From Your Lighthouse' is the album's weakest song, a country hoe down that's a duet between a gruff and falsetto Macca vocal. Neither is all that successful and neither is the melody, which sounds like a second-hand Johnny Cash song. However a nice guitar solo livens things up and this song could have been a nice B-side with different words (the ones here use the metaphor of the title - presumably another ode to Nancy, although it could be another overhang from the Heather era - a few too many times for comfort). Like the lighthouse itself, this song looks pretty from a distance but involves too many stairs leading you round and round and getting you nowhere.
'Sun Is Shining' is the most traditionally obvious McCartney song on the album. A pretty melody that sounds so obvious it should have existed for centuries is played relay style across several instruments over a ;lengthy opening before the vocal kick in. Throughout this a wind chimes/church bells sound plays the main riff, the very image of the 'sun coming up' during the opening verse. Perhaps equating sunlight with inspiration (more a thing that other writers do, particularly Ray Davies, but 'Good Day Sunshine' for one hints that Paul has at least thought once about weather affecting mood), Paul's narrator sings about how lovely the world looks on a new morning and how different it seems from the cold lonely darkness of the night before. Like the others, this song was largely improvised on the spot but I would suggest that it had been rattling around it's author's head for a while: it's more polished than some of the other songs here and sounds like more was done to it in the studio. Once again a largely happy joyful lyric is joined by phrases that suggests Macca is looking for a sign from nature (or perhaps Linda) that he's doing the right thing: 'tell me tell me' he pleads near the end for instance. A pretty song, it's welcome to hear Paul already moving on from the darkness of the 'Heather Mills years' (or at least the end of them: the song 'Your Loving Flame' from 2001's 'Driving Rain' suggests that, far from being a mere gold-digger, the pair had feelings for each other in the early years whatever their problems) and the chorus is instantly hummable and infectious - in fact more memorable than any from the past two albums designed from the start to be a series of hummable and infectious pop songs.
'Dance Till We're High' is perhaps the most fragmentary of these improvised songs. Once again the narrator finds a sign from nature when snow falls: 'If we knew what it meant, we would take care' (it might, just possibly, have reminded Paul of his earlier 1986 song 'Footprints', in which a sad old man spends so long mourning for his absent loved one he misses the beauty around him: now a widow himself, Paul may have been jolted by a memory of this). Paul suddenly 'realises' the message is to make the most of life: that the meaning of life is to 'dance till we're high, together, to light up the sky, together' and proclaims his announcements with an image of bells ringing out across the sky. Another song finding 'acceptance' from some mystical force, the song does little past that revelation - there's just two verses and one lengthy repeated chorus - but what there is is very sweet indeed. Once again, it's hard not to get wrapped up in Paul's infectious and melodic enthusiasm and the result is the 'grower' of the album, a song that's difficult to connect to at first but the track on the album you'll find yourself coming back to, embellished by a more subtle backing than normal and a lovely subtle string arrangement that's all the more effective for not being 'in your face' (even the 'bells', which on another McCartney album - like 'Chaos and Creation' - would have been overdone to 'make sure' we got the message, are nicely underplayed here).
The moody 'Lifelong Passion' is the start of a five piece sequence that holds more in common with the previous two Fireman records and less with Paul's releases under his own name. A slow and moody near-instrumental, this song features some nice use of synthesisers and sports another pretty melody. The lyrics are truly bizarre: Paul's up a mountain, listening to his girlfriend's 'sweet sweet laughter and loving conversation' and taking note of her 'solutions'. A call to 'give me love' and 'be my lifelong passion' then switches gears to the point where Paul asks her or sees her 'sail away'. A second verse finds him doing near enough the same somewhere else with 'warm breezes', where he takes the hand of his unknown companion, kisses her and finds himself again pleading for love before she too 'sails away'. A lengthy fade features Paul singing the chorus over and over, but this time the backing drops away till he's nearly on his own, joined only by a bluesy harmonicas (traditionally the instrument played by people when they're 'on their own'). Could it be that this is Paul, having just bid goodbye to the two loves of his life, wondering if he'll get a third and pleading for love? If so then it's a moving song (well, it's a moving song anyway, whatever's going on), especially for someone who spent so much of his career singing about the delights of being in love - we know how much it means to McCartney to have someone to write love songs too. Another album highlight.
'Is This Love?' sounds like an extract from a bonkers new age musical, full of chanting voices and strange sounds with a suddenly booming chorus. Once again Paul is chasing 'birds' - it's a swallow this time he's on the look out for, willing her to 'come home to me' (is it Heather?) Pausing to himself mid-chase to ask if it's worth it Paul's narrator stops and asks himself 'is this love?' and never quite gives a reply, suggesting the answer is 'no' but that's an answer he doesn't want to admit to just yet. The lyrics on this song are hard to hear - usually a give-away that they mean something the writer isn't quite sure about letting out just yet, perhaps they haven't come to terms with it themselves - and play second fiddle to an ambient backing track that somehow manages to be both still and restless at the same time, full of some exotic Indian flavoured sounds (this is the track that particularly sounds like old partner George Harrison's 'Wonderwall' soundtrack with it's marriage of East and West). While peaceful for the most part (sounding like a meditative trance, perhaps Paul once again trying to connect with the universe for 'answers')a scary cry of 'help me help me help me' points at how desperate for answers the questioner is. A sudden change near the end sounds like Paul coming back to Earth, mumbling something under his breath while the spacey effects slowly disperse and leave him with a simple 'throb' of day to day living.
'Lovers In A Dream' is closer in spirit and, well, noise to the first two Fireman albums 'Rushes' and 'Strawberries, Ships, Oceans, Forest'. It sounds like the instrumental soundtrack to some modern indie movie, with all sorts of noises washing into a sound based around a wurlitzer Pink Floyd-style organ and an awful lot of percussion. Paul mutters something just out of earshot ('Lovers in a dream, warmer than the sun...') that gradually gets louder the more our ears acclimatise to it (or perhaps they simply turn the volume up - I shall have to do some scientific testing on a few unsuspecting guinea pigs and get back to you...) The overall effect is one of chaos and a song that perhaps doesn't work as well as the other songs on the album, but it's a natural step for the man who once made eleven minutes of 'Secret Friend' and six of 'Check My Machine', getting fully into a more updated version of the technology and seeing how far he can stretch the envelope with just a few ideas and a little technological knowhow. The theme is interesting: is this Paul's happy memories of life with Linda? Or a reflection of his better times with Heather? (or even Jane Asher?) The similarity of this piece to Heather's only musical release 'Voice' (a song made with McCartney's help, back in the early days of their relationship when they were still dating) suggests it's her, in which case is the scary 'jungle' effect of the opening and the sudden awkward spins and turns on the song's axis significant? (the song starts with a cello doubling as a tiger's roar) Or is it just McCartney 'reaching out' for words?
'Universal Here, Everlasting Now' is a prettier instrumental which starts like a traditional piano piece and bears more than a passing similarity to 'Be What You See' (the link that segued into 'Dress Me Up As A Robber' on 'Tug Of War'). A whole host of sound effects are thrown at this one including a barking dog (which sounds suspiciously like Paul doing another 'Hey Bulldog' style impression), some whispered voices and an owl hoot (not unlike the one on the soundtrack of 'Rupert and the Frog Song - a few ribbits is all this song is missing, actually). The song finally gets going some two minutes with an urgent modern drum rhythm (you know the sort of things, technically accurate but lacking in all soul) and a few wailing guitar and synth lines but actually I prefer the atmospheric opening. The title, another typically 'could mean everything, could mean nothing' Fireman phrase, is about the most interesting thing about this track.
'Don't Stop Running' is the lengthy finale, starting with a burbling cauldron and ending up as pretty modern-day indie band (the sort of thing the 90s acts who lived the 60s but used modern technology often sound like - take a bow Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals and Ocean Colour Scene). Paul has a sort of guide vocal that weaves throughout the sound with snatches of phrases: 'Modern day...silent lovers...angels smiling...it's our hearts...don't stop running'. Chances are this lyric means nothing (it's yet another lyric 'reached' for by Paul in need of something and grabbing the first thing that came to mind. However it's a very intriguing lyric: a sort of sequel to 'Band On The Run' in which the mercurial McCartney is still impatient to rush on to the next big thing in his life, to escape the prisons he finds himself trapped with and to expand the public's idea of who he is. In his personal life, too, this lyric has significance: the Mills affair would have been more than enough to prevent most celebrities from ever getting married or going out again, but already Paul - desperate for a companion by his side - has committed to Nancy, flying in the face of a public outcry that it was 'too soon', the same thing that greeted him when he married Heather. Once again this album returns to it's favourite theme: the last union wasn't right (the heavens greeted it with 'driving rain'), but this time the 'heavens' (perhaps wife Linda) offers her blessing, with 'angels smiling' because the couple's 'hearts' ring true. It makes for a fascinating if heavy-going end to a fascinating if at times heavy-going album.
Or at least, that's nearly the end of the album, for after a two minute pause (and starting at about the eight minute mark) in comes a 'song' (actually more a collection of bleeping sounds') which, according to the copyright information logged with the album's publishers MPL, is titled 'Road Trip'. The end of the road for Macca's adventurous side? Hopefully not, although this little McCartney II style extra is perhaps the furthest out thing on the record, perhaps a little too far down the road for all but Macca's biggest fans.
Like McCartney and McCartney II there are a handful of experiments too far to stop this album becoming a 100% McCartney classic like the old days, but somehow even these small lapses in taste don’t alienate the listener as they did on ‘Chaos and Creation In the Backyard’ and ‘Flaming Pie’; they merely add to the home-made home-grown feel of the album as a whole. When I was working for the Runcorn Weekly News I ended my review for ‘Chaos’ by moaning at Macca for so obviously sticking to his guns and not daring to stretch himself any more. While ‘Electric Arguments’ certainly isn’t perfect and only really catches fire intermittently, this album is exactly the sort of one I wanted Sir Paul to make. Perhaps the best compliment of all – as long-term AAA fans will know – is that this album reminds me of Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’. The album’s detractors will tell you that it’s fragmented, unfocussed and has nothing in the way of a really ear-catching traditional melody-line. The album’s supporters will tell you that they love this album for exactly the same reasons – you’re never quite sure where it’s going to go next, but usually it will be something wonderful and it still sounds like something running through this album (the nature trying to get a 'message' though, the wilderness of being betrayed and between wives, the theme of 'birds') just about in focus enough to tie the record together. You wouldn’t want every album in the ‘McCartney Collection’ to sound like this one, but having one or two records this daring, exciting and unusual is fine by me. Let's hope the next Fireman record comes out soon...