Sunday, 22 April 2012
Paul McCartney "Kisses On The Bottom" (2012) (News, Views and Music 141)
Paul McCartney “Kisses On The Bottom” (2012)
I’m Going To Sit Down And Write Myself A Letter/ Home (When Shadows Fall)/It’s Only A Paper Moon/ More I Cannot Tell You/ The Glory Of Love/We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)/ Accentuate The Positive/My Valentine/Always/My Very Good Friend The Milkman/ Bye Bye Blackbird/Get Yourself Another Fool/The Inch Worm/Only Our Hearts
Of all the weird things Paul McCartney has done with his career, ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ is right up there with the original McCartney II (the world’s most avent garde electronic album), any of the Fireman CDs (improvised noise) and Rupert and The Frog Song Chorus. That said, this album of pre-war standards, delivered by Macca in his best crooning sense, makes more sense than any of these given Paul’s back catalogue and is arguably the easiest going of all his eccentric catalogue spin offs. Forget the risqué title – this is McCartney at his most conservative and that’s going to annoy more fans than its going to excite, with less links to rock and roll than, well, The Spice Girls. In many ways this album is the ‘yin’ to Run Devil Run’s rock and roll ‘yang’, offering up the ‘other’ well of inspiration that the songwriting McCartney has been drawing off his whole songwriting career through. For what it is, ‘Kisses’ is an undeniably listenable record, one that’s far better than those of us fans brought up on some excruciating easy listening mis-steps like ‘Treat Her Gently’ and ‘Baby’s Request’ feared it might be. For a start, Macca drops his usual rock and roll vocal stance for a breathier, older, more vulnerable tone that quite suits both him and the slightly more fragile feel of a lot of these songs. Paul also gets full marks for copying the ‘Run Devil Run’ mine of slightly more obscure records than normal, going for the B-sides and the album tracks rather than the big hits of the day. There are moments spread across the whole record where suddenly everything works and the whole weird scheme sounds worth exploring, especially the two tracks Paul himself brings himself to the table, written so well in the same style that if you didn’t know the man’s work well you wouldn’t spot the join.
However, that’s to avoid the elephant in the room: why on earth is McCartney, possessor of one of the best rock and roll voices (still undiminished at the age of 69) and writer of some of the greatest moments in music history content to record wishy-washy leftovers most of his fanbase are guaranteed to hate? After all, empty twee material like ‘Accen-tu-ate The Positive’ are exactly the sort of songs Beatlemania was designed to replace with verve, excitement and presence, something that this album is deeply lacking. The fact that Paul is reduced to recording these songs in his old age seems to suggest he’s run out of ideas, but no – it was only two years ago we were praising McCartney to the hilt for being brave and releasing the ‘Fireman’ set ‘Electronic Arguments’, one of the most joyously pioneering songs of his long discography. Paul’s not lost his touch in the past two years either if the two new songs are anything to go by either, with his writing stronger than any of the so-called greats he covers on this album (Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, etc – surprisingly there’s no Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael, two writers often quoted by the Beatles as an influence in their more conservative days). Even so, the question is not ‘is it good?’ so much as ‘is it worthwhile?’ The answer, as ever, is yes and no, with ‘Kisses’ falling flatter than a rainy weekend away in Bognor in some places and yet being as memorable as a sun-drenched trip to Venice in others.
I must be honest, I never got that whole crooning thing. I was brought up in a household where equal playing time was given over to classical music, jazz, easy listening and The Beatles – and I can’t tell you how much better The Beatles clearly were (and are) over everything else that made up that list. In fact I still struggle why anyone would want to listen to any of the dross that isn’t linked to the music on this site when you could easily spend the rest of your life listening to nothing but powerful, emotional, life-affirming nuggets of magic – but then that’s collectors for you; some of you who’ve come here to specifically read this album and don’t own any of McCartney’s other work probably disagree with me completely. For my money though everything in this genre is so slow it seems to be playing at the wrong speed and the most famous and talked about singers like Frank Sinatra clearly don’t have the lung capacity, vocal nous or dynamic control to compete with the AAA artists on our list. Now, the genres are so different its hard to compare, but most people taking the easy listening route simply don’t have the same emotional bond with their work that rock and roll singers do; to them music is a matter of life and death or at the very least survival and realisation – most easy listening albums seem to have been made whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. There are exceptions (Sammy Davis Jnr, Bing Crosby, the ever under-rated Michael Holliday) but even then I can’t help but feel what a waste of talent they represent because they weren’t born in the rock and roll era when songs were real and music was powerful etc etc. Anyway, to cut this paragraph short, if McCartney has made this record for a particular part of his demographic, I’m from the ‘other’ part that got left behind and other listeners might well see this album in a different light. But why risk alienating part of your fanbase at all?
The answer is three-fold. First up, McCartney must be the most archetypal Gemini in the history of music – for every step towards the serious and philosophical there’s a frothy side to Macca’s writing. Hence the fact that he can follow ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ with ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ without skipping a beat in the 70s and yet even as early as the first Beatles days this ability to switch styles used to irritate the stubborn one-view Lennon enormously. Personally I love the variety of sources that Paul always has to choose from – its that learning and that knowledge of what to do and what not to do (most of the time at least) that makes him so great and that magpie personality that’s covered just about every genre going (rock, pop, folk, country, punk, electronic, new wave, heavy metal, cod-French, psychedelia, classical, even dance and acidhouse for a time in the 90s) gives Macca’s songs a wider and more interesting balance than most other writers. If Paul was to turn round and make an album out of madrigals, lutes or chanting monks I wouldn’t be at all surprised (he’d dot it with a lot more sensitivity and soul than wannabe Sting would too); equally if Macca was to make a hip-hop, rap or a grunge album I wouldn’t put it past him either – and not simply because he wanted to sound trendy either (he was into punk curiously early for a musician of his generation and adored reggae long before it was a household name). My problem is that recently Paul’s been sticking to just one of these traits and making whole albums out of them – it started back with the rock and roll covers ‘Choba B CCCP’ in 1988 and continued through the Fireman stuff, the classical pieces and the Fireman pieces and however shocking one song in a whole new genre might sound, hearing 10 other similar songs next to it weakens that shock factor and excitement. In short, Macca seems to be going down the path Neil Young went down in the 1980s, when the switch between genres from one album to another was enough to make your head spin – what we need now from McCartney is something akin to Neil’s ‘Freedom’ LP (see review no 92) at the end of that decade that shows off the best sides of all his characters at once, with the contrasts between the songs ‘being’ the whole point of the record, not something to confuse your audience with. Hearing so much of one genre, especially on an album like this one pretty much designed not to break the mood too much, is frankly a waste after the joys of the unexpected on ‘Electronic Arguments’ (see news and views 13A for our take on that album).
Secondly, Paul may well have been inspired by the ‘duet’ he recorded with Tony Bennett in 2006, ‘The Very Thought Of You’, which beats anything on this record hands down. There’s nothing like seeing another singer at home in his own habitat to inspire you to make your own record and, following on from Paul’s experiences with Carl Perkins, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, even Johnny Cash (on the often overlooked ‘Under A Jamaica Moon’), this piece may have set the seed turning in Paul’s mind. It might be too that he heard the now (gulp) five volumes of the Road Stewart American Songbook and decided that it was time to show the world how that material should sound if done his way (ie properly). His voice has aged better than Stewart’s and his respect for the material shines through much brighter – the question, though, is whether the market will open up for Paul the same way; certainly we don’t to end up like Rod’s fans and spend ten years waiting for a rock and roll album. Something tells me ‘Kisses’ isn’t a long-term career move though, just something McCartney wanted to get off his chest.
The other album similar to this is, of course, Ringo Starr’s ‘Sentimental Journey’, an album of standards recorded in the dying days of the Beatles’ career and on which McCartney helped arrange a number of songs, including one he re-does here albeit quite differently (‘Bye Bye Blackbird’). It won’t surprise any of you to learn that this album is superior (Ringo tries hard but he’s not a natural vocalist and only really comes into his own on country songs where his bawling voice makes more sense), but what might surprise you is how much. Ringo’s song choices are much more obvious and thus beg greater comparisons with the original – Paul avoids this obstacle by singing songs we only half-remember or have only read about before. Despite having half-a-dozen arrangers (including Maurice Gibb and George Martin), Ringo’s album sounds the same throughout – namely slow and clumsy. By contrast probably the best factor about ‘Kisses’ is the care that went into the programming, complementing songs against each other and shaking up the tempos occasionally, as well as going from upbeat to downbeat songs. Ringo also sounded woefully lost against an orchestra, acting the part of a role he’s never going to fill, whereas what fans will take away most from ‘Kisses’ is how at home McCartney sounds here. He could have been recording like this his whole career through – and indeed, might well have done had The Beatles not been the success they were and had rock and roll died out the way it seemed to have done by 1960 with Elvis in the army, Jerry Lee Lewis in jail and the loss of Buddy Holly.
Ringo famously recorded his album for his mother to enjoy –whereas Paul seems to have recorded his album very much for third wife Nancy. It’s been a joy to see Paul as happy as he’s been in the past year, after a difficult decade-and-a-half since the death of first wife Linda. And just as that descent into a rather difficult period in his life was kick-started by a covers album (‘Run Devil Run’, made at the request of Linda who’d bonded with Paul cover their love of early rock and roll), so this new period to wife three Nancy Shevell has been signified by this album of standards. Linda and second wife Heather Mills really weren’t the type to enjoy crooning devotions of love and we don’t really know much about Nancy (quite sensibly given what happened last time she’s stayed out of the limelight – and the Daily Mail’s attempts to rake up old family links of the mafia haven’t dimmed the public’s respect for the happiness she seems to have given Paul), but here for the most part Paul sounds like a love-struck teenager. Well, a love-struck teenager singing in a pensioner’s voice (the record’s better than that sounds, by the way).
There’s a definite ‘theme’ on this record, of enjoying yourself after a troubled time. We hear it again time and time over on this album: ‘Now my blue days have passed, because I’ve found you at last’, ‘I wish my heart was stronger, it would be beating faster at the sight of you’ and in the best line of the record ‘Out of your embrace, the world’s a parking place’ (‘Paper Moon’). The album only breaks that spirit once, right near the end with ‘Get Yourself Another Fool’, which would sound like a kiss-off to Heather Mills had it not been written sixty years before the couple even met (and yet still might have been picked to symbolise that event). Even here though and certainly across the rest of the album Paul also sings in a warm fuzzy relaxed quality that’s far more convincing than the usual easy listening attempt to tell us what difficulties they’re experiencing (its truly diabolical but Sid Vicious’ version of ‘My Way’ is still the only one to properly address that song’s angst and aggression). This album is very much an album of devotion, with more ‘silly love songs’ than we’ve heard on a McCartney album for some time (the past four have been unusually grumpy and defensive, possibly because of the much publicised Heather Mills fall-out. Macca’s music has ironically benefitted from all that angst and tension, ironically, with three of the last four albums sounding stronger than average (‘the awful and sappy ‘Choas and Creation’ being the odd one out). But after so many albums of songs about difficulty and obstacles, it’s nice to hear McCartney in cruise mode, sounding relaxed and happy across the whole of this album and anyone whose ever felt any admiration for one of the greatest musicians we have left will be glad at the way things seem to be turning out for him. We just don’t want him to make a whole career out of it for his music’s sake. If only EMI had gone the whole hog with their half-planned ‘Valentine’s Day’ promotion this album might have become a big romantic seller –perhaps because few of us long-term fans will ever seriously feel the need to get the CD out of its box in any other week of the year. As it is, they missed a marketing trick there.
That talk about heartfelt romance brings us on to the two biggest talking points of the record, namely the two new original compositions which are the first real ‘silly love songs’ we’ve heard from McCartney since as long ago as ‘Your Loving Flame’, the highlight of 2001’s ‘Driving Rain’. And just like on ‘Run Devil Run’ the news songs not only fit in snugly into the overall soundscape of the album, fooling more than one listener into thinking that they are pre-War standards they just didn’t happen to know, they just happen to be the best things on the album. ‘My Valentine’ is the song that’s caused the most fuss, thanks to Eric Clapton guesting on the album (the first time the pair have worked together in the studio since making ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in 1968!) and its release as the first single. It was a splendid choice, being the highlight of the album and one of Paul’s best songs in ages (although several tracks from ‘Electric Arguments’ do rank alongside it) and deserved to be such a radio ‘hit’. What most people have forgotten, though, is how strong the other song is, with closer ‘Only Our Hearts’ a second moving ballad that somehow manages to be deeper, more emotional and of a higher quality than anything else on the album, even the well known stuff. Marvel again at McCartney’s ability to sound like just about anybody in rock – and curse the fact that we don’t get a whole album of songs up to this standard.
A word too about the backing for this album. As per usual recently, McCartney’s been using ‘Old Black’, the bass used on many an Elvis session including ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (and bought for Paul at auction by first wife Linda). For the most part, though, he’s just a singer this time around and content to let jazz pianist Diana Krall’s band do all the musical talking. For the most part they make for a sympathetic ensemble, letting Paul’s voice take centre stage and the sparseness of the backing makes sense when the occasional colourful wash of an orchestra floats past. Yet for the most part, their arrangements are a little bit too similar, making even the angriest track on this album sound like another slab of slighty tipsy happiness. Look out too for Stevie Wonder’s name in the credits, playing harmonica on ‘Only Our Hearts’ and making his first appearance with Paul in 30 years (yes, it really is that long since ‘Ebony and Ivory’!)
It’s not usual for an album this new (the album came out in February – sorry for the delay in reviewing it but, well, we had other albums to buy that were more important at the time) to have bonus tracks, but this one does: ‘My One and Only Love’, a sweet song performed rather better than Doris Day’s more famous version and ‘Baby’s Request’, a re-recording of the track we nominated as Paul’s all-time worst in our review of the original on ‘Back To The Egg’ (news and views 13). While I’d still much rather hear a re-recording of ‘Honey Pie’ ‘When I’m 64’ or ‘You Gave Me The Answer’ Macca does get the chance to put much of the worst points of that recording to rest. There’s no irritating glissando guitar intro, the tempo is slower which puts more attention on the words rather than the smug melody-line and Paul is of a much more suitable age to sing a nostalgia song. ‘Baby’s Request’ still doesn’t sound good, mind you, and it’s easily the worst song here, but at least it’s just bad rather than toe-curlingly, mind-numbingly awful like before. Alas the ‘other’ exclusive bonus tracks – a four-song mini concert live from the Capitol Tower in NY where these recordings were made – is just a pricey rip-off that doesn’t add much to the experience (there are no new songs and all four sound suspiciously similar – certainly they’re not worth the extra money and, rightly, there’s been anger on the fan forums about not having the pictures to go with the songs – the show was filmed and streamed live on I-tunes, sure to become yet another Mccartney collectible one day).
In all, what you get out of this album depends how you approach it. This isn’t a bad album, certainly not as bad as I feared it might be when I first heard that McCartney was working on a crooning album, but like ‘Run Devil Run’ there seems little point to the exercise. We knew Macca could sing well anyway and interestingly as his new, softer style is that’s no substitute for the interest a new set of McCartney songs would give. We know Macca’s always had a respect for the songwriting around in his youth and before it otherwise he wouldn’t have written those odd songs on other albums – hearing him do other people’s work doesn’t really add much to our understanding of those songs or McCartney himself. In truth, this was an album that should have been kept private, like a romantic letter addressed to his new love that we didn’t really need to hear – treated on those terms its a fine album with McCartney on good vocal form and with as good an ear as ever for the arrangements, but that’s it. Treat it as the ‘new’ McCartney album at your peril, its really only an off-cut that got lucky; an often interesting always listenable off-cut admittedly but no substitute for the main course of a new rock and roll album. What I’ve noticed in the reviews on Amazon and similar feedback-third party sites is that the people who love this album are the ones who either don’t know or don’t like McCartney’s ‘other’ career and its the bigger fans like me who aren’t too sure about it. In fact, you could fit a whole yellow submarine into the chasm between those who ‘love’ it and those who ‘hate’ it (as ever in these cases, I’m largely neutral!) That seems to be the case with his classical releases too – so perhaps it’s no bad thing that McCartney is taking the opportunity to stretch his palette and show off his skills to other audiences. After all, goodness knows there’s over 30 rock and roll albums to choose from and that’s not counting the 14 albums by The Beatles and as easy listening albums go this is about as good as it gets. But still we have to ask the question, why isn’t rock and roll enough any more? In McCartney’s hands it used to be the widest, deepest, most elastic and expandable genre since our cavemen ancestors found different rocks made different sounds to sing along to. Where has our genre gone and how do we expect the generations behind us to ever ‘get’ why its the best art-form ever created if even the greatest practitioners of the art have passed it by? Let’s hope this is just a marking time project that’s giving Macca the inspiration he needs to make a real album again...
First up is one of the weaker tracks, ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter’, by songwriters Ahlert and Young and best known for appearing in the hoary old musical ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ (there are lots of good musicals from the period around but, sadly, this isn’t one of them). Sinatra and Bing Crosby covered it too, though goodness knows why because it’s not the strongest song in the rat pack compilations. It’s easy to see the influences this song had on the young McCartney, used to hearing this song from his dad James’ record collection, and the Beatles’ first B-side ‘P.S. I Love You’ is pretty darn close to the sentiments of this song, which is really just a love letter set to music. There’s even a rhyme somewhere near the end of each verse (‘kisses on the botto m, I’ll be glad I’ve got ‘em’), which is more of a typical McCartney line than any he actually wrote on this album (I still haven’t forgiven him for ‘Biker like an icon’ yet!) That’s where the two songs end comparison however: the tune to this ‘standard’ is pretty much non-existent, the sentiments add nothing you wouldn’t guess from my description of the song and even at the age of 20 when he wrote ‘his’ song McCartney was a more assured and inventive composer than his idols. There’s also a curious mix of first and second-person narrative going on in the song, with McCartney switching between letter writer and receiver, which just sounds like bad writing. To be fair to the writers, though, much of the problem with this recording comes from the tired arrangements – tired tinkling piano solo, drums played with brushes, no sense of dynamics or variation – which make a poor song sound worse. Macca struggles with the vocal a bit too, with the whole thing pitched slightly too high for comfort. In other words, this filler really shouldn’t have made the album, never mind as the opening track – why not replace it with supposed bonus track ‘My One and Only Love’? The curious title of ‘Kisses’, by the way, comes from this song where a letter is sealed with... ‘kisses on the bottom’ (see, it’s not what you thought at all!)
‘Home (When Shadows Fall)’ is sadly only marginally better as a listening experience, with an already slow song dropped to the tempo of a crawl. Only on the middle eight, with his voice cracking under the effort, does McCartney inject any passion into the song (‘Stars begin peeping one by one...’) – by and large everyone is again on auto-pilot, mistaking ‘easy listening’ to mean no effort rather than ‘no sign of effort’. It’s exactly the sort of thing The Beatles were championed for coming along and destroying, in other words, except that the lyrics to ‘Home’ (by Harry Clarkson, Geoffrey Clarkson and Peter Van Steeden and best known for being recorded by Sam Cooke) are actually pretty strong. A song about the joys of returning home and nature’s way of drawing the close of a day to a natural end, it’s easy to see this as a metaphor for a rather bigger story (one that McCartney’s already turned into a standard with ‘The Long And Winding Road’). It’s just a shame that there isn’t a strong tune to match the lyrics and that everyone involved in this recording seems to have retired and gone to bed already.
‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ starts a run of songs that are much more impressive, with McCartney’s natural bounce and optimism to the forte. I’ve always wondered why ‘Paper Moon’ isn’t a better known song because it manages to sum up that inter-war era so much better than other more famous songs (like the dire ‘Magic Moments’, a fussier re-write of this song), with clever snappy lyrics, a hummable tune and intriguing and very Lennonish ideas about how imagination is reality when shared by two (or in Yoko’s words ‘dreams we dream alone are just dreams, but dreams dreamt together are reality’). It’s another song by Yip Harburg and Ahlen (best known for their score for ‘Wizard Of Oz’) and pretty much the only reason people remember the flop musical ‘The Great Magoo’. Interestingly, it wasn’t until one of Macca’s idols Nat ‘King’ Cole revived it in the 1950s that it became popular, although of course ‘us’ sci-fi fans know it best for a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode of the same name... McCartney sings it well, finding a natural home in the song’s easy going breeze and talk about using the power of the imagination as a starting point for love. Even the backing musicians seem to come alive on this track, which badly deserved to be both the opening number and the second single from the album.
‘More I Cannot Wish You’ is another sweet song, with the schmaltz turned low and the cuteness levels high, although this time there are too many demands placed on McCartney’s voice, which really is beginning to show alarming signs of age now he’s approaching his 70th birthday. In many ways that’s quite fitting though for a song that encompasses all time periods, with an older Macca wishing those his age ‘wisdom to match the grey hairs on your head’ and wishing those younger the chance to ‘find your one true love’. Given the context of Macca’s new love, this is a marvellous opportunity for Paul to declare his love and he seems to have invested far more thought into his vocal than on other songs on this album. There’s even a verse about music, wishing the listener ‘merry music while you’re young’, which is a sweet offering to fans like us. The tempo of the song is slow again, but not too slow – this is a reflective song that calls for slowness this time and the ‘spaces’ are as important to this song as the words. By the way Macca slurs some of the words to sound like ‘a sheepish eye’ but that’s not actually what’s in the lyrics – its a ‘sheep’s eye’ (army slang for a shy but amorous glance) and a ‘liqourice tooth’ (ie with a ‘sweet’ tooth addicted to romance and the sugary side of life). In all, probably the best of the many cover versions on this album, with McCartney coming into his own with a proper melody to follow and a set of lyrics that seem genuine and sincere. The song, by Frank Loessler, is best known for being part of the musical ‘Guys and Dolls’, but sounds much better and certainly much more heartfelt in the Beatle’s hands than in any of the cast recordings I’ve ever heard.
A deep bass rumble signals the start of ‘The Glory Of Love’ and it’s the most playful part of the album, acting as a kind of off-the-cuff introduction to one of the best known songs on the album. Billy Hill wrote this unusually poppy song which was first brought to fame by Benny Goodman and covered by pretty much everyone in the ‘easy listening’ category since. McCartney gets to sing in his falsetto here, the famous voice he first used on ‘Girlfriend’ in the Wings days, although again his age is beginning to show in the cracks in the voice. As a song this is better than average on the album, with some pretty sweet lyrics instructing us on how to stay in love (‘give a little, take a little and expect the blues a little’). Like the sentiments, the arrangements tries to keep things relaxed and slow, but its less successful at keeping the audience’s attention, with only that opening bass improvisation catching the ear. It’s also in the running for the slowest cover of this song ever recorded and rather loses the bounce and irreverent verve with which its meant to be sung. Still, there are far worse versions of this song around and for a novice McCartney is doing well.
By this point in the album you’ll either be fed up or crying for more. Alas even I’m getting sick of hearing the same plodding slow-motion arrangements and I was quite genuinely into the last three recordings. Things don’t improve for track six ‘We Three’, which is a trio between the narrator, his shadow and his echo but alas isn’t as entertaining as that description makes the song sound. Basically, the narrator is alone, waiting to meet his true love, but doesn’t want to admit it to himself – hence this rather awkward compromise. Brenda Lee, The Ink Spots and Frank Sinatra sang the three best known versions of this song, in rather different arrangements (not least the pitch) – unusually for this album McCartney’s version adds nothing to any of his predecessors and the arrangement again turns a song that should be full of life into something of a drag. Again, though, note the fact that Macca has gone for the quirky, imagination-fuelled nonsense song rather than the more usual suspects about love, romance and ordinary life.
The worst song on the album has to be ‘Accentuate The Positive’ and I’m going to be quick with this review because I really, really don’t want to have to sit through this song too many times. As you can tell from the title, its an empty song about putting a good spin on things which takes optimism to the heights of mental illness. A song that starts ‘gather round everybody, hear me preach’ is all but guaranteed to put you off, even in jest and the sentiments are so confused they’re plainly wrong. For the record, the key part of the stories of both Noah and Jonah in the bible is that they had their doubts, worried greatly about the tasks set them and assumed that being human and frail they were going to fail – they certainly didn’t waltz into the flood and whale respectively ‘accen-shu-atin’ the postive’, they prayed for faith and hoped for the best. That breezy optimism has become something of a McCartney trademark over the years and, frankly, that’s annoying – its in the songs where Macca opens up to his frailties and faults that he proves his greatness, not writing or covering fluff like this (is it just me or is this song only a crotchet away from ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘Rocky Raccoon’, possibly the two worst songs in Macca’s back catalogue?) And who the hell is ‘Mr In-Between’ (other than a character on the third Lindisfarne album?!) and what is he doing on this song? A shambling mess by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, best known for Bing Crosby’s version (whose vocal style suits the song a whole lot better than Paul’s it has to be said), it really doesn’t deserve to be as well known a song as it is. Paul’s version is guilty of accentuating all the worst points of the song too: the drippy half-riff in the vocal, the god-awful tinkling piano solo that sounds like it was played by a real non-soulful entity like Jools Holland or Jamie Callum and a vocal that veers alarming out of key more times then the Plastic Ono Band live in Toronto. Ouch!
Thankfully ‘My Valentine’ pretty much single-handedly rescues the album, the first McCartney love song in 11 years having a touch of ‘My Love’ about it. The lyrics are heartfelt, clearly written for new wife Nancy and marvelling at the fact that he has a new love in his life at last who cares for the person he is rather than the celebrity. The addition of Eric Clapton on guitar is a masterstroke, with old Slowhand delivering a pretty nifty and uncharacteristic Spanish guitar part (that actually sounds more like one of Paul’s other celebrity friend’s David Gilmour’s work). Just listen to how much tighter the arrangement is than anything else on the album, with real tension between the striding vocal moving up chord by chord and trying to break the leash of the piano part moving slowly down. There’s even a dazzling middle eight that seems to spring from nowhere and makes full sense of the rest of the song, just like the days of old and with more than a touch of ‘And I Love Her’ about it (this section even starts the same way: ‘And I will lover her for life and never let a day go by...’). It’s amazing, really, that one of our best known writers of love songs has gone this long without using the word ‘valentine’ in a song (well barring the title of instrumental ‘Valentine’s Day’ from ‘McCartney’ anyway) but the sheer skill in this song suggests he was saving the word up for something special. After all, neither Linda nor Heather Mills were traditional romantics but third wife Nancy seems to be bringing out the softer side of McCartney’s writing and, so far, it’s been a joy to hear. Had McCartney sent this song to ol’ blue eyes instead of ‘Suicide’ he’d have had a much better reception – this song deservedly became Macca’s biggest hit in quite a while. I just wish there’d been more like it on the record.
Instead, we’re back to the cover versions. ‘Always’ is another dreamy love song by Irving Berlin that ever so nearly made it into the first Marx Brothers film ‘The Coconuts’ (it would have been a good fit, what with the opening lines ‘Everything went wrong...’. Another of the better recordings on the album, this is another well written song that seems to reflect the situation McCartney’s been in recently, starting in a world full of troubles and then watching amazed as they disappear, all because of having the right person in his life. Paul sings the song well, up until the higher part near the middle of the song anyway, and sounds far more committed here than on the rest of the CD. That’s Eric Clapton playing the guitar again and for the second track in a row using Paul’s re-invention of himself as a crooner to re-invent himself as an easy listening guitarist. Personally, I’d have liked to have heard a bit more of a difference between the ‘sad’ and ‘happy’ verses, with more of a tension between the two, but that said the arrangement for this song is delightfully subtle, with a bank of strings playing quietly in the background that seem to be playing a different song altogether (a la Brian Wilson) and work with the gentle innocence of the lyrics quite well.
Not so good is ‘My Very Good Friend, The Milkman’, the novelty song of the record that bears more than a passing resemblance to 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’. The narrator can’t see how much he’s in love with his girlfriend, but its so obvious that everyone else can see it but him. This Fats Waller song is possibly the most obscure on the record, but its actually quite sweet when you know the whole story of how Paul and Nancy met – good friends since the early 90s, Nancy and her first husband used to enjoy meeting up with Paul and Linda before both Mrs McCartney and Mr Shevell fell poorly with different strains of cancer. Understandably both Paul and Nancy comforted each other on their loss but only slowly fell in love – and from what I’ve heard it took an outside figure to tell the couple what they were already thinking but were too shy to admit to each other. With that story this song sounds like a real message of love and there’s a definite twinkle in Macca’s voice over and above the fun he’s having trying to whistle and do his impression of the song’s composer. Without it, this is just a daft novelty song that quickly outstays its welcome and sounds rather better in the original version. Again the backing musicians are at most fault, without any real direction or energy in their playing, although a brief and for this album rare trumpet solo is the highlight of the recording.
‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ is the song this album has in common with Ringo’s ‘Sentimental Journey’ and is one of the better known songs on the album, composed by Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon. It’s an unusual track for this album, more of a blues than an easy listening track, with the violins turned up really loud for once. The links between this song and Paul’s own ‘Blackbird’ are clearly too much to resist, however, and both songs have been given some, err, inventive backgrounds over the years (Macca admits now his White Album song was really about a female African-American protestor he saw on the News, whilst the most common theory behind ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ doing the rounds is that the narrator is waving goodbye to a prostitute!) Certainly this song about loneliness seems to have struck a chord with McCartney, who hasn’t been as long out of love as he was during the Heather Mills debacle as he had since his teens. He sings it well too, heading towards melancholy in the opening before the arrangement changes and gives the song a sort of slow shuffle optimism instead. The result is one of the more interesting songs on the album and is given a much more stately, sympathetic feel than Paul’s arrangement for Ringo on his album all those years ago. He sings it rather better too, although again he seems to fall half-asleep somewhere around the middle.
‘Get Yourself Another Fool’ is another song clearly inspired by the Heather Mills years and lyrically sounds at one with the angrier songs on Macca’s last album ‘Electric Arguments’, even though musically the settings couldn’t be more different. McCartney’s occasional collaborator Elvis Costello recorded the best version of this song – Macca just doesn’t have the bite or sarcasm he needs in his voice for this Haywood and Tucker composition and the harshness of the words sound like a distant memory rather than a living, breathing anger in this recording. In fact, Macca sounds out of sorts here altogether, pitching his voice wrong on several lines and getting lost amidst a rather cluttered arrangement full of that godawful piano again, Eric Clapton’s bluesier and rather more characteristic playing and another orchestral arrangement. There’s simply so much going on here Paul’s vocal needs to be central to it all – and instead he sounds like an extra in his own song. Only the sweet extended ending, where Macca improvises the title lines over and over, unwilling the song to end (as per ‘Party’, the extended end to ‘Run Devil Run’). Like that track, it’s as if he’s reluctant to let his ‘old’ life go, but goodness knows he gives us enough reasons on the rest of the album to embrace this new phase in his life.
‘Inch-Worm’ is the oddest choice for the album, an old Hans Christian Anderson ditty about a schoolboy day-dreaming out of the window while his class-mates are trying to learn their times-tables. It’s been covered by lots of singers and had rather an extended life for what is really just a simple children’s nursery rhyme, but I have to say this song’s melody is the best of the whole album barring the two songs that Macca wrote. The arrangement is better than expected too, with McCartney wide awake and playful with his vocal, now thankfully restored to the centre of the mix, and a strong Spanish guitar part to replace that piano lick. Even the children’s choir is better than expected, with Paul making for rather a believable schoolboy as he joins in with his best ‘Rupert’ voice and the fact that unlike some versions we don’t hear it till near the end is a neat touch. Still, though, we have to ask, lovely as this is why the hell is one of the greatest composers that ever walked the planet spending his time re-recording a children’s song? (Is he just copying Brian Wilson and his even moiré curious ‘Songs In The Key Of Disney’?!)
The album ends with its second original composition, ‘Only Our Hearts’, whose romantic prose fits snugly onto an album largely about keeping the romantic mood and easily has the best orchestral arrangement of the record, with the violins even taking the key melody line of the song from time to time. It’s not an insult to say this song sounds like its been around at least as long as the oldest recordings here and manages to be both similar in content to what’s come before and a genuinely nice song in its own right. Remember that moment in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ where Ringo’s Aunt and Buster Bloodvessel fall in love? Remember the outcry against that scene for making ‘fun of old people’ ?! This is Paul putting things right, celebrating a relationship in the narrator’s twilight years he wasn’t expecting and even opening up to frailties, like a weakened heart (hopefully just a metaphorical one – the world isn’t ready to lose another Beatle just yet). The lyrics are some of the sappiest Macca has ever written, but nevertheless ring true and the panic when his loved one isn’t near is a neat touch that harks back to past classics like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘My Love’. There’s even a sly put-down of the media coverage with the line ‘only out hearts know how much love is there’, vowing to keep this relationship a ‘secret’ (well, as much of a ‘secret’ as you can when releasing a CD!) The arrangement makes the best out of the song and the lovely sweeping melody that somehow manages to combine ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (Wings’ version) and ‘Let’s Love’, Paul’s song for Peggy Lee, and yet sounding stronger than both of those songs. Stevie Wonder adds a marvellous period harmonica solo, sounding not unlike Max Geldray, which is the icing on the (wedding) cake. The second triumph of the album, with Paul showing his songwriting is still the class of the field, even on an album with songs by Irving Berlin and Yip Harburg. Again, though, the frustration is that there isn’t more of this to be had – if McCartney had written a fully original album in this style the results would have been better all round.
Overall, then, ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ is a better record than I feared given the few oddities heading in that direction on Macca’s past albums. In many ways its the ‘Wedding Album’ that Joh n and Yoko should have made, as warmly cosy and intimate as the piece of wedding cake photo the couple included in their 1969 ‘avent garde’ celebration, but better. In many ways it’s a privilege to hear this album and to have Paul back to his happy best. For the most part this record is made with care, sensitively handled and well sung and the two new songs on it are definitely worthy successors to Paul’s lengthy canon. But, even now several listens in, there’s nothing on this record to grasp at, no defining moment that makes me go ‘ah yes I see now’ and understand why on earth McCartney wanted so badly to make this album. Some critics called this album his first masterpiece in years – it certainly isn’t that; but then neither is it the ‘talking out of his bottom’ failure other critics would have you believe. ‘Kisses’ is ultimately a curio – an interesting experiment that succeeds in parts but fails in many more and will undoubtedly be forgotten just as soon as the next true McCartney comes out to take its place. Somewhere in my collection I still have my promo window sticker, handed out with vinyl copies of Paul’s 1989 work ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ which reads ‘I’d rather be listening to McCartney’. In terms of life, it goes without saying that I’d rather be listening to McCartney than pretty much all other things, but that goes for my record collection too – what’s the point of listening to either tuneless modern or equal tuneless old music when, in that sticker’s words, I could be listening to McCartney. Perhaps that sign should have read ‘I’d rather be listening to McCartney doing what he does best’ because, really, what is the point of this album when we could all be listening to ‘proper’ McCartney?