Monday 4 November 2013

Paul McCartney "New" (2013) (Album Review)

You can now buy our e-book 'Smile Away - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Paul McCartney' by clicking here!

Paul McCartney "New" (2013)

Save Us/Alligator/On My Way To Work/Queenie Eye/Early Days/New/Appreciate/Everybody Out There/Hosanna/I Can Bet/Looking At Her/Road/Scared (Unlisted Extra Track)

The first thing to say about 'New' is how old-fashioned it is. After two albums that have veered to even more extremes than usual and revealed yet more sides to McCartney's eclecticism (an exciting, exhilarating dance through improvisation on 'Electronic Arguments' released under the pseudonym of 'The Fireman' and a what-the?! album of crooning classics released as 'Kisses On The Bottom' that seemed to serve no purpose except make Michael Buble look almost respectable) hearing Macca go back to making his first 'pop' album in six years is something of a relief. Unlike those two records there's nothing here to make long-term fans go either 'arrgh' or 'aaaah' depending on their tastes (and both of those records had more than their fair share of fans doing both), with 'New' very similar all round to his last 'proper' album 'Memory Almost Full'. Casual fans of Macca's pop side will find much to love, those who've always found Macca's albums a touch too fluffy and light will find an awful lot more ammunition and his real true long-term fans will love and loathe parts of this record in equal measure. In other words, this isn't really 'new' in the same way the last two albums were, in fact it 'seems like old times' (to quote one of the better unreleased McCartney pop songs).

As ever, reviewers for eagerly awaited album 'New' have been playing the 'it's the best album since...' game that all McCartney fans will recognise because they've done that with practically everything Paul has released since The Beatles days. Is 'New' the best album since 'Memory Almost Full' 'Chaos and Creation' 'Flaming Pie' 'Tug Of War or even 'Band On The Run' as one reviewer put it? Well, no sadly. As it happens, it's not even as good as his last-album-but-one 'Electric Arguments' and it's rather a shame that the lessons learnt on that album seem to have all been discarded for this one (that by using a false name and new character Macca could reveal parts of his character he's never shown us before and mining Macca's natural responsive gifts of musicality like never before, with each song built from improvisation and finished mere hours after they were begun). However that's more a measure of how much Macca has lifted his game recently than any great slight on 'New', which somehow manages to be both more traditional and more groundbreaking than the pretty awful run of albums we fans were getting in the mid 2000s ('Chaos and Creation in the Backyard' , which we nominated as the second-worst AAA album of all time in an article five years ago and 'Memory Almost Full', a spruced up outtakes set from the same sessions, which wasn't far off making the list either). You see, 'New' is more what fans were expecting when the sheer difference and brilliance of the 'Fireman' album stopped them in their tracks and re-arranged everything we thought we knew about Macca. As an album it's another of those sprawling affairs from the 2000s period that instead of condensing McCartney's abilities in one particular genre tries to handle several at once and as a result the songs don't really rub together that well. At least there's some ambition here again, some feeling that some care has been taken over the material and with what fans might want to hear, even if there are some really clumsy rhymes and some really trite melodies here once again - the bugbear of both of these awful albums. The ratio of good songs to bad is higher than either record and at least this time there's enough depth to this album to allow you to come back later and give even its worst moments another try (frankly I was so hurt by how embarrassingly poor 'Chaos and Creation' was I don't think I've played it since the month after it came out - so writing that review on this site is going to be fun!) The bad news is that ratio is still pretty small by such high past standards (was it only 12 years ago we fans were all moaning because only two-thirds of 2001's 'Driving Rain' was classic Macca?!) and after the excellent production of 'Electric Arguments' and the strange but effective production for 'Kisses On The Bottom' (which did sound great I have to say - it was just a shame about the songs and the style) we seem to have gone backwards again - this is as over-polished and as awkwardly unapologetically 'modern' as Macca has ever been. Frankly I was expecting a little more after the 'Fireman' spell got my hopes up but then again 'New' is still a better record than I thought McCartney would be capable of again even a few years ago, so I can't say I'm devastated either.

This record even goes one stage further than either 'Chaos' or 'Memory' by dividing the album across four different producers, four different recording studios and four different time zones. Apparently this was an attempt to 'audition' new producers before making a full record with one of them, before Paul realised that he already had a 'good' record and didn't need to do anything more. Personally, I'd have pushed for him to have made the full album with Ethan Johns, as all of the best work on the album seems to have been done on 'his' watch and his production seems to give warmth to Macca's work whereas the other three tend to suck the warmth out for some very brittle, sterile tracks (but then maybe my ears are just attuned to his 'sound' more, being an ex-CSN producer and all - certainly I own more albums with him producing than all the other three combined). An album in the future with George Martin's son Giles wouldn't go amiss either, as frankly even his dad would have struggled with the material Macca gives him here and the younger Martin shows the same kind of instinctive empathy his dad used to have, even if Giles is equally too nice and too much of a gentleman to tell him when a song really isn't working (I can just imagine how that first phone-call home went after the first recording session: 'Yes, dad, he's an instinctive musical genius alright but for a genius he doesn't have make a lot of mistakes and he won't take no for an answer' 'Yes son, I've been telling you that for years now'). The other two producers here, Mark Ronson and Paul Epworth, contributed the more 'modern' sounding songs which as far as I'm concerned don't really 'get' Macca at all: In short, it's 'Pipes Of Peace' all over again, wherein a perfectly good basis for an album produced by George Martin was ruined by too many cameos for big 'name' producers people only remember now for working with McCartney dragging his timeless music into a 'modern' age that now sounds horribly dated (I dare say most of 'New' will start to sound pretty 'Old' by the end of the decade too). But then what this album does so clumsily (and the nearest equivalent, Neil Young's 'Freedom', did so brilliantly) is try to sum up a man by giving us all the different sides of his multi-faceted personality at once. That's a fascinating idea and there absolutely should be an album revealing McCartney to be a multi-talented Renaissance man who can cover every genre going - that's always been one of his biggest strengths. However, this album doesn't quite deliver on that thanks to the odd sloppy lyric, the odd odd idea and a feeling of 'it's going to sell anyway, so this will do', with some of the work here clearly superior to others. If I know my McCartney, he got bored halfway through the project and instead of throwing away the worst songs on B-sides or keeping them in the vaults like most musicians do nowadays, he simply released the lot. And if I know my McCartney, his view of his own best work doesn't match anyone else's anyway, so there might well be better stuff than this sitting in the vaults for years to come anyway.

Take, for instance, the two 'bonus' tracks released with 'deluxe' editions of the album: technically we vow only to review those songs released 'properly' on the first issue of an album, but they're worth discussing here because the 'deluxe' edition of the album has been out as long as the 'normal' one. Both of them are better than almost everything on the album 'proper' and successfully manage to sound both 'catchy' and 'deep' (the two things our website has always reckoned every great song has in common). 'Turned Out' uses Macca's quick-stepping rhymes to good effect on a song about Nancy, the new love in Paul's life, while offering a rare post-'Driving Rain' reflection on the Heather Mills years that gives the song much more depth than most songs that use Macca's commercial instincts this obviously. This should have been the first single, never mind on the album 'proper'. 'Get Me Out Of Here' is weirder, a vocal distortion making Paul sound as if he's singing down a crackly telephone on a song that shamefully rips off Buddy Holly's 'Oh Boy' (Paul owns the publishing to this song himself, so I doubt he'll be sued anytime soon). Paul sings the song over a very tricky acoustic riff that really makes the song and the feeling of being trapped and somewhere lost, while played for laughs (Macca even ad libs 'I'm a celebrity!...Get me out of here!' at one point) is just unsettling and unusual enough for the experiment to work. Frankly had the rest of the album been up to the standards of these two 'unloved' songs it would have been much more successful all round.

That said, there are still a few standout tracks that do 'count' and none of them would have embarrassed even past gems of records like 'Ram' 'Venus and Mars' or 'London Town'. 'Hosanna' is a song that's been haunting me ever since I first heard it, Paul's natural knack for writing beautiful poignant ballads that sound so obvious they should have existed for centuries, but with the beauty twisted thanks to an unusual melody line that suddenly veers from major to minor key, unable to quite settle on either, and a glorious eerie production that makes everything sound not-quite-right. For this one song only, McCartney sounds like a man whose found everything he's always wanted but knows he'll inevitably lose it pretty soon, as poignant and heartbroken as any song from his great back catalogue. 'Early Days' is more straightforward, returning to the 'memory' theme of 'Almost Full' and the pre-Love Me Do days but better, acknowledging shock at how long ago it all is and yet how near it all seems rather than simply giving us a list of things that he remembers. 'Road' is a clever closer to the album, updating one of Macca's favourite metaphors (life as a journey or a 'road' filled with great views but awful obstacles) to tell us both the highs and the lows of the recent stops on his journey. Like 'Hosanna' it's unsettling and dramatic, with all of Macca's usual characteristics (some pretty awful and obvious rhymes plus his natural gift for clever melodies) distorted once again by a memorable production that makes the journey sound a lot more costly than it would have done otherwise. Best of all, though, might be the song that isn't even a 'track' at all but a 'hidden' unlisted bonus track that officially doesn't have a name but fans have already taken to calling 'Scared'. Singing alone to his empty piano chords Paul pours out his heart to his new love, admitting than even he - after a lifetime of singing 'silly love songs' - can't bring himself to say 'I love you' for fear of sounding a bit soft. This song is for third wife Nancy what 'My Love' was to Linda, 'Your Loving Flame' was to Heather and 'And I Love Her' was to Jane Asher, a song both deeply personal and universal in a way that only a McCartney song can be.

That's four excellent songs, then, which already gives 'New' a greater standing than many McCartney albums. However, when this album is bad it's pretty awful: I spent most of my first hearing of this album seeing how many 'rhymes' I could guess first time around and it's no credit to me that I got most of them right. There's a slapdash feeling about quite a lot of this album with songs full of some truly awful clunking moments (lowest point: the chorus of 'Queenie Eye' that seems to be trying it's best to out-cringe itself with every new rhyme - 'Queenie Eye, whose got the ball? I haven't got it, it isn't in my pocket, O-U-T spells out! That's out! Without a shadow of a doubt! 'Cause you've been putting it about! Hear the people shout!') that new writers would be ashamed of putting to paper, never mind the person who wrote the clever multi-layered words to songs like 'Eleanor Rigby' 'Fool On The Hill' and 'Maybe I'm Amazed'. The fact that this is the song chosen as the second single only makes things worse (the first single, 'New' itself, is a better song but an even worse choice for a single, a subtle 'grower' that needs lots of playings to hear properly). There are way too many songs on this album that seem to exist simply because they're Paul's idea of what modern music sounds like now and as most of it seems to be shouting he does the same. Both 'Queenie Eye' and 'Everybody Out There' seem to demand an audience participation, but without the song to go with it a hackneyed stab at the singalong ending to 'Hey Jude' simply doesn't cut it. While only 'Queenie Eye' 'Everybody Out There' and the twee opening bars of 'On My Way To Work' are truly amongst Macca's worst work (this is a man who wrote the excruciatingly twee 'Beautiful Night' and 'English Tea', remember, songs that make even 'Ebony and Ivory' and 'The Frog Chorus' look like poetry by comparison), which is better odds than either of the pre-Fireman CDs, your head still reels at the sheer wrongness of these songs. Doesn't care? Doesn't know any better? Doesn't know his own best material? Doesn't know anyone brave enough to say 'no'? Whatever the reason, there are still some horrid mistakes on this album which would have the likes of Lennon either giggling or turning in his grave.

Much as I love him at his best (when he's at his most McCartney-ish, actually), much of this album sounds more like a Gilbert O'Sullivan album than a McCartney one: the same awkward rhymes, the simple nursery rhyme phrases and the same lack of imagination (these two may well be the most naturally gifted of all the AAA clan, but the downside of having music that pours out of you so easily is that a lot of bad stuff pours out as well as the good). There's another influence I picked up on this album too, thankfully a more interesting one. Macca's been a good friend to Brian Wilson down the years, praising the Beach Boys music long past the point when interviewers stopped regarding the band as something to aspire to and there's been some Wilson brothers-style harmonies in his work since as long ago as 'Here, There and Everywhere' (never mind 'Back In The USSR'). The end of 'New' is pure Beach Boys via Macca's own 'Dear Boy' (from 'Ram'). Another band who adore the Beach Boys is the Super Furry Animals, who have spent nearly 20 years now channelling both the pristine, rather awkward harmonies of the striped shirts era and the sheer weirdness of the Smile era using modern technology (you can read our brief guide to them in News and Views 170). Like 'New', most Super Furry Animals have a rather hit-and-miss mix of what was fun to come up with at the time but sounds rather daft on playback and the genuinely exciting (they were clearly an influence on the 'Fireman' albums too - Macca even appeared as a guest on the Super Furries' most out-there Fireman-like single 'Receptacle for the Respectable', in which he munched carrots in the pair's direct homage to 'Smile'). However 'Electric Arguments' generally had the same mood from the beginning to the end of each song - 'New' by contrast whistles down electronic tunnels, vocal distortion effects come and go and songs stop midway for some completely random and unexpected collage of noise , an experience very similar to listening to a Super Furries album (the harmonies aren't far off either).

That might have come as a bit of a shock to McCartney's band, who have been playing straight-ahead no-frills rock and roll with him for 13 years now (longer than the Beatles were together, even counting for name changes and almost double the length of Wings in all it's many unstable line-ups). Then again, not much seems to have come as a shock to them despite a decade of traditional crooning songs, improvised weirdness, a second oratorio and various recesses for extra-curricular McCartney projects, from paintings to cartoons to poetry readings to Linda McCartney sausages launches. 'New' should have been right down the band's line, the first 'real' time that they'd done a full studio record with their master, but no: yet again Paul only chooses to work with the band for less than half the record, either overdubbing the rest himself or getting in a few outside musicians (none of which Paul's worked with before, interestingly). To be honest I'm not so sure that's a good move - the band have already proved themselves to be empathetic and eclectic enough to handle all of Macca's moods and there's nothing here they wouldn't be able to play (heck, they 'formed' whilst working on the 'Driving Rain' record together and if they could make their way through that turbulent, under-rated LP this one should have been a doddle). On the plus side, though, Macca himself gets a lot more to do than normal recently, his bass playing is fat and proud and centre stage for the first time in at least a decade (apart from 'On My Way To Work' and 'Everybody Out There' when Richard Pryce plays bass and shows just how much better Paul is at working out complex bass parts) and his gradually weakening voice, first heard properly on 'Kisses On The Bottom', only shines through when it's meant to shine through (i.e. on 'Early Days' and 'Scared', the two songs not hidden by electronic trickery). This isn't quite the tour-de-force for Paul's abilities to play anything that 'Electric Arguments' but it's close and that's always welcome - even if using the full band on a full album would still be a better move.

There are two real 'themes' to this record. The first, as so often happens with McCartney, is love. Paul has already slipped his first real 'love song' to third wife Nancy Shevell on 'Kisses' (album highlight 'My Valentine', on which Paul out-Cole Porters any of the Cole Porter songs on the record), but this is his first real chance to write an 'album' about the new relationship. While Nancy is sketchier as a character than either Linda or Heather were (the pair seem to have learnt the hard way about keeping out of the spotlight after the Heather Mills Years and the song 'Looking At Her' seems to be about how wonderful it is to be married to someone who doesn't want the spotlight), there are many songs here about scared narrators afraid at first to take another chance on love but being oh so glad they did ('Road' and 'Hosanna' especially). 'Appreciate' seems to be the mantra of the record as well as the name of one track, Macca eagerly recognising how wrong things went and how good they're going now. Best of all, for us fans who've followed his work through thick and thin and grown close to him, McCartney sounds happy again for the first time on record since about 1993.

The second theme is odder, although it does sort-of tie in with the closing trilogy of 'Memory Almost Full' (memories, if you hadn't guessed). Much of this record seems to be a rather postmodernist take on McCartney's own career, admitting that it hasn't always been as strong as it might have been but that he's trying and that 'I can bet that you'll never guess what I'm gonna do next' (another reason it seems so Gilbert O'Sullivan-esque: you have to love a writer who comes up with a sentence 'I still like this song - but sadly it doesn't knock me out!') 'Early Days' and 'On My Way To Work' could have come right off 'Memory' in fact, a look back at both the famous and not so famous times in McCartney's early 20s, the former even coming with a blunt you-weren't-there-so-stop-writing-about-it! verse aimed squarely at writers like me (perhaps if you finally wrote that book, Paul, and set the record straight we wouldn't all have to guess at the truth - and no, neither the airbrushed 'Anthology' or Ringo's book of Postcards quite counts!) One interview Macca gave the other month in support of this album might hint at why Paul's work keeps cropping up in these songs: an interview where Macca spoke for the first time about one of his last meetings with Lennon who turned to him and asked, worriedly, 'what do you think my legacy will be when I'm gone?' (as we've seen a few times on this site already, Lennon had quite a strong premonition of his death which got stronger the closer he came to those awful events in December 1980). Paul shook his head in wonder, told his friend not to worry, that he'd done far too many wonderful things to be forgotten and that his good points always outweighed the bad. Parts of 'New' sounds like Macca mulling over the same point, wondering about his own legacy and whether he comes up short in his own expectations or not, never mind anyone else's (Paul Simon did a similar thing with his record 'So Beautiful Or So What?' last year, even going so far as to imagine his achievements being matched against his weaknesses in the afterlife).

If true, then it's fitting that 'New' is in many ways a microcosm of Paul's whole career. Parts of it aren't just good, they're fabulous, haunting and revealing nuggets of wisdom, whimsy and warmth every bit worthy of the McCartney name and back catalogue. Other parts sound like mistakes, clumsy rhymes and all-too obvious rhymes rudely stapled onto a song that tries to go for the lowest common denominator and makes both him and us sound stoopid. And other songs are 'nearly' songs, with some good ideas or a typically clever or handsome tune felled by a weak lyric, an overly dramatic production or a loss of inspiration as to how to make a merely good song sound great. 'New' isn't classic McCartney, and compared to 'Electric Arguments' even the most adventurous song here seems woefully old-fashioned and one dimensional, but parts of this album are classic McCartney and after all those albums and all that time that's still good enough for me. Is this a come down project after a better and then a battier record then? A marking time album before inspiration strikes again? A consolidation pop record after the last two attempts backfired so badly? All three? Who knows! As one of these songs put it 'bet you can't guess where I'm headed next'. Like this record I await it both with the great hope that we still haven't quite seen the best of McCartney yet (not solo anyway) but also with the quiet fear that Paul might yet again throw all the lessons he's learnt for another quick album which he knows will sell like hotcakes whatever his fans really think of it. And think of it - and buy it - they should, even if it's hardly the best album since 'Driving Rain', never mind 'Flaming Pie' 'Tug Of War' 'Band On The Run' et al.


'Save Us' gets the album off to a frenetic start with the most 'Fireman' like song on the album (which makes sense, as it's the one that's closest to being 'improvised', Macca coming up with the lyrics in the studio after jamming on the backing track). Like many of Paul's on-the-spot lyrics it's a tad more revealing than his 'worked on' songs. McCartney's narrator sings of the 'jungle rhythms in me' that mean his busy mind won't keep still and that even now, in comparatively good times, he's in the 'heat of battle'. As ever, all he needs is love to set him free though, calling out to the love of his life to keep protecting him because 'you've got something that will save us'. Naturally everyone's assumed this is a song about new wife Nancy, but note that word 'us' rather than 'me' - is Paul referring to his family here rather than himself (and if so, is he going back in time to his days with Linda?) Note too, though, the rather dismissive second line 'you're not that hard to please' - you'd expect that to be a good thing in context (Nancy's hatred of the spotlight is a big sea-change for one of McCartney's girlfriends as we've already seen), but Macca sings it with a Lennon-ish sneer here that seems at odds with his plea for her to keep loving him a few bars later. As ever with these semi-improvised songs, this song is far more open-ended and open to interpretation by McCartrney standards. What's not quite up to standard is the tune, which does a good job at conjuring up excitement but is also scrappy and messy, with Paul Epworth's production a tad too insistent in making the band sound a little too contemporary. I have to say, though, that unlike the 'Fireman' songs this one sounds far better live, played with McCartney's full band instead of just Macca and Epworth between them and the band clearly 'understand' this song live more than the pair did coming up with it in the studio. It's also quite hard to forgive the couplet 'You're my woman so keep it coming!' as good as the other lyrics are (again, note how Gilbert O'Sullivan that line is). Not bad, then, but it's a shame that a few of the rough edges weren't knocked into shape, that Macca chose to do this solo without his band and that he didn't go for just one more take of both music and vocals at a time when everyone was clearer what they were doing.

'Alligator' is another curio, a classic McCartney melodic hybrid of an urgent verse and a laidback chorus (think 'Band On The Run', although the switch between them isn't quite as dramatic) undermined by a lyric that isn't so much bad as deeply weird. Many fans online have been asking why on earth this sing is called 'Alligator', but it is mentioned in the lyrics, albeit in a very garbled way, in what must be the strangest metaphor ever used in a McCartney song: 'I want someone who can save me, when I come home from the zoo, I need somebody whose a sweet communicator I can give my alligator to!' (Given that this is the same man who came up with 'Mr H Atom' and 'All You Horseriders', that's really saying something!) Mark Ronson's production is again a tad too concerned with making McCartney sound 'modern', but it is a lot more fitting this time around, especially the loud crashing guitar parts twinned in the left and right speakers that crash in a la 'Let Me Roll It' (and is a dead ringer for Paul's friend Eric Stewart's work in 10cc) and the gentle held piano chords that hold the whole song together in the chorus a la Wings. The basics of this song were recorded by Macca's band and it shows: this comparatively tricky song is handled with ease throughout. The question, really, is whether it needs to be this complicated: at its heart this is just another McCartney song about needing somebody to love, just handled more clumsily than normal. The most interesting part of the song, though, is the one that everyone misses in the second verse: 'Everybody is doing better than me...and I can see why it is, they've got someone setting them free'. Is this Macca's admission that, oblivious of sales, his last two 'proper' albums simply didn't hack it with oldtimer fans like me and that he was simply blanking out the verses, unable to let his real feelings about the Heather Mills years show? There's a neat middle eight, too, that really enhances the song, Paul singing in falsetto for the first time in a while (a la 'Girlfriend' and 'So Bad') on his moving question 'Can you be that person for me?' (listen out for the very Beach Boys harmonies in the background here too - if only McCartney and Brian Wilson could work together full time we might get a whole album like this one day -0 well they've both worked with just about everyone else!) Overall, then, this is a 'nearly' song that almost works but tries a little bit too hard to shoe-horn an eccentric lyric into a straightforward pop song that it really doesn't fit.

'On My Way To Work' is one of those songs you tend to get once every McCartney album, that start off sounding like the worst song on the album but end up among the best after enough listens. The opening phrase 'On my way to work I rode a big green bus' is awful, a misguided attempt to repeat the 'everyday life' middle section of 'A Day In The Life' without the drama of Lennon's other two sections to hold it in check, sung in the sort of voice most people reserve for speaking to toddlers (Giles Martin produced this song, perhaps in homage to his dad's single greatest contribution to a Beatles record). The rest of the song is better, though, Macca reflecting on all the worries, hopes and dreams he used to have back when he was an unknown teenager sitting on the bus on his way to work (Macca's rather overplayed his 'job' in interviews about this song though: he was a 'coil-winder' in Liverpool for all of a week before the late nights at the Cavern met he 'slept in' on his new job and got fired; he lasted slightly longer as a post office delivery boy but wouldn't have used the bus to Liverpool town centre for that job!) This is clearly a key memory for McCartney: when Brian Matthews asks him (during that wonderful but short-lived radio series 'Pop Go The Beatles', released in part on the two Beatles at the BBC collections) 'what do you miss now you're famous?' he doesn't even have to think before he says 'riding on a bus!' (Macca always was a good people-watcher and there's nowhere better for observing others than on busses, where no one else can see you given how dirty most of the windows usually are!) 'How far away the future seemed' Macca sighs in the chorus, the years finally catching up with him, before adding the killer line that 'How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true?' While Paul might be talking about something private here he's never mentioned I'm sure this is his vision of 'When I'm 64' (the first draft of which he wrote at 15, two or three years before he travelled into Liverpool 'on his way to work') and his idea of being with the love of his life in old age. The way he puts this line, though, is very clever: McCartney well knows that most people don't get any of their dreams to come true and he knows he's done alright for himself - but you sense here he'd give up all his success in an instant to have Linda back. If only Macca had worked on this chorus as being the 'whole' song this could have been a McCartney classic, but as it is the whole of the verses (set in the 'past') are awfully twee and annoying - and again rather odd at times ('She came from Chichester, to study art, she had removed her clothes, for the likes of me' - is this Ray Davies' seductive Art School Babe again on a daytrip to Liverpool?!) Still, though, 'On My Way To Work' is both more pioneering and more moving than any of the similar attempts at cosy memories on 'Memory Almost Full' and the slight edge the chorus gives the song works really well.

'Queenie Eye', however, is nothing short of appalling. One of those tired, cliched, audience-sing-along numbers, this is an unwanted sequel to the equally horrid title track of 'Flaming Pie' via 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', with the same simple crashing chords and grotesque lyrics. We already spoke about the cringeworthy chorus above (at least when The Beatles came up with the similar 'O-U-T Spells Out' chorus for 'Christmas Time Is Here Again' they a) were clearly laughing b) gave the song away for free on a Christmas flexidisc sent to members of their fanclub and c) gave it to Ringo to sing, knowing full well no one would take it seriously). But the verses aren't much better: 'All the switches, wicked witches fan the flame, be careful what you touch in case you burn' - which sounds more like the instructions on a set of Halloween fireworks than a proper lyric. Admittedly everyone involved sounds like they're having fun and this is one of the best performances on the record (regular guitarist Rusty Anderson's on it but the rest of the band are missing, surprisingly). Paul Epworth's production is again far too modern, but the problem isn't really his fault (it's hard to do a mindless song like this one and not spruce it up to sound contemporary, which goes for any era any time). But good grief, ex-Beatles should have better things to do with their time than yell 'hey hey hey' over and over double-tracked and getting a very weedy synthesiser made up of 'voices' to sound as if the audience are shouting back (I might well be shouting, Macca, but it's something unrepeatable when this song's playing). Amazingly this is the new single from the album at the time of writing - anyone who buys it is either a) drunk b) mad or c) really proving their worth as a McCartney collector (there isn't even an exclusive B-side this time around!) Now, it sounds to me as if 'Queenie Eye' might well be a Liverpudlian playground game (the same as Lennon's favourite childhood rhyme 'yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog's eye' - and if that sounds familiar that's because a half-remembered version of it ended up in 'I Am The Walrus'), but if it is I can't find any mention of it despite trawling the internet for hours and asking all the local Scousers I know if they've heard of it. Is Macca instead trying to make a playground rhyme up (did he write this especially for the now 10-year-old Beatrice, perhaps, whose at the perfect age for skipping games?) Or have I just missed it? Do write in if you know...

'Early Days' is another superior song about memory, one where Ethan Johns has done his usual sterling job by stepping in only where needed and building this song up slowly, instrument by instrument, as the song progresses. As a result, Macca starts off singing to his lone acoustic guitar and he hasn't sounded this vulnerable and naked for some time, one of only two times on this record where his fading voice isn't hidden by electronics and given the lyrics this is really effective. If 'Work' was Macca's memory of a time when he was unknown, this is his memory of the time in the spotlight, sharing the glare with his three close buddies and 'turning pain to laughter' in order to cope with the pressure. The glasses here are less rose-tinted than normal, especially that last verse when he turns on those who weren't there but talk as if they were ('I don't see how they can remember when they weren't where it was at'). However, we've heard the Beatles story so many times we all feel as if we were there, especially when Macca brings it to life so well. The details in this song are exceptional: both him and Lennon dressed in black with guitars 'slung across our backs' walking the 'city roads, seeking someone who would listen to the music' and hearing songs destined to be rock and roll classics for the first time at the local record shop (Brian Epstein's NEMS maybe?) where 'we willed the thrill to never end'. If this all sounds a bit 'what I did on my school holidays' then note the almost angry chorus that vows, however much people attack McCartney, that 'they can't take it from me' and his shock at living through 'those early days' when so many didn't. The melody is a strong one too, a more conversational-style than Macca's usual style, mainly held on one note with sudden soars above and below that note for added poignancy (most Johnny Cash songs are in this style if that helps explain what I'm on about). I would have liked a little more variety - you do feel as if you've got everything from this song as early as a minute in when we switch to the chorus for the first time, which is a shame - and again there are some pretty clumsy rhymes here ('Days' and 'crazed' especially). But overall 'Early Days' is a strong song, a sort of 'Penny Lane' for old age, that strikes just the right notes of soppy sentimentality and reality checks.

Title track 'New' is another slow-burner. I wasn't sure what to think when this song was released ahead of the rest of the album and it takes quite a few playings to actually hear this as a 'song' as opposed to just 'Penny Lane' with new words (the piano parts are near enough identical). A middle walking-paced pop song, this seems to be how Macca thinks of all of his commercial songs nowadays (it's a mere ukulele part away from 'Dance Tonight' as well, though thankfully not quite as desperate to appeal to the lowest common denominator) and the ambition here is low, with only an unexpected vocal tag (that comes straight out of 'Pet Sounds') catching the ear outside all the plodding. Lyrically, though, this is a little better than most songs on the album (if equally odd and unexpected), Macca sounding almost agoraphobic as he appeals 'Don't look at me! It's way too soon to see what I'm going to be!' The idea that he keeps surprising even himself is an interesting basis for a song (as we've often said, McCartney is the ultimate Gemini, leaping from one contradictory project to another, from high art like poetry and paintings to children's books, from dance albums to crooning standards, from twee pop songs to classical requiems - and that's just in the past five years!)and that 'all my life I never knew what I could be' and still doesn't know for sure. There's yet another reference to someone (surely Nancy) coming along and 'saving' him - but for an alternate view of this song, note the references to 'searching for a ride' which harks back to two key Beatles 'drug' songs ('Ticket To Ride', which is lyrically all Lennon's but the 'heavy' drug-befuddled sound was very much McCartney's interpretation of how John and George described their experiences with drugs and 'Got To Get You Into My Life', Macca's song about the first time he took cannabis: 'I was alone, I took a ride, I didn't know what I would find there...') Certainly there's something slightly lopsided and drug-fuddled about 'New', which doesn't sound 'New' or 'Old' so much as that both worlds have been superimposed on top of each other for that slightly blurry effect you get from watching 3D films without the proper glasses (just listen to the way the very modern style drumming hits ye olde harpsichord head on; this is another Mark Ronson production by the way). Rumour has it Macca is back to the soft drugs after years of having them banned from the house by Heather Mills, which makes the chorus line of 'We can do what we want we can live how we choose 'particularly interesting. It's a shame, though, that no one could come up with a more interesting backing track than simply plodding piano chords without anything else really to keep our interest (at least Penny Lane had a trumpet solo) and, quite honestly, this is the one song from the album that should never have been a single: it's charms only hit you long after you've first heard it.

'Appreciate' is another oddball that sounds like a direct sequel to 'Gratitude' from 'Memory Almost Full' ('be grateful for what you have' is the theme of both songs and they both have the slightly unsettling modern production too). Giles Martin's production may be the most modern thing on the record, but he's caught Macca's voice well, with the record sounding most like an update of, say, 'McCartney II' on modern technology than Epworth or Ronson's work. A rather moody, paranoid song highlighted by a classic chilling guitar solo from Rusty Andersen, it sounds like several McCartneys talking to themselves (the band even use the same trick Macca once used on 'Dear Boy' for the distorted, inner rantings on the 'She Says...' passages, which are amongst the most striking moments on the record. That goes double when Abe Lorial Junior's drums kick in (he's easily the most gifted drummer to have played in any of Paul's bands) and dominate the song, almost beating it into submission. It's always good to hear our heroes revealed as human and here Macca at least appears to giving himself a stern telling off for taking his new wife's love for granted and that 'even when left for dead in the middle of a crisis you must appreciate the day'. This song seems to have gone down particularly well with fans and Paul himself revealed it as his 'probable' favourite from the album in an interview for BBC6 , which is interesting because it's probably the most adventurous song on the album, quite unlike anything Macca's done before (even 'Gratitude only 'sounds' like this one - at its heart it's a jolly, rather patronising song not a turbulent soul searching one like this track). However, this is a bit of a case for style over substance: there's no real message going on in this song or if there is then we don't have either an answer or a key to understanding it and great as the eerie atmospherics are they do ultimately sound like they're there for atmosphere and nothing more. Still, this is another 'nearly' song that still comes pretty close to success.

'Everybody Out There' is basically 'Queenie Eye' part two, another song that only seems to exist so that the audience at home can sing along (I'm amazed this hasn't features in the band's setlists yet as it sounds born for that sort of thing). However, this time at least there's a half-decent tune to go with the song and it's great to hear Macca go back to his 'Press To Play' style of working, building the song up from two strummed acoustic guitars bit by bit (yes, people still scoff, but I still claim that album as one of Paul's most adventurous and triumphant albums, only a smidgeon behind 'Ram' in terms of his solo work). There is a kind-of message in the song too, a sort of 'I'm-on-your-side' underdog supportive gesture that adds that Paul 'knows what it's like' to suffer from past experience, even if he seems to have got it made now (although the chorus 'There but for the grace of God go you...and I' is a bit of a mouthful and rather patronising to boot). The closing cries of 'I can't hear you!!!' are a bad idea too goodness knows since The Coalition that people have been shouting loud enough, it's just that nobody in charge has taken any real notice (we've had five of the biggest protest marches in history in the past five year, only one of which made the news and then as the 'comedy' item at the end). It's clear that Macca's heart is in the right place here: he's trying to connect with and understand his audience, urges us to 'stand in line' to make a difference because he is too and I'd rather he write a song like this one than simply ignore the world's problems (or, worse, sing about the problems of being a millionaire which is what many of is contemporaries have done). But, really, there's nothing in this song that helps: this is another hopelessly empty song that won't impress anyone that Paul 'knows what it's like' no matter how many times he says it and lines like 'I was trying to remember...' won't endear him to anyone. This is another Giles Martin production, by the way, but he seems to have missed the point of this song, smothering it with fake 'heys' as if the crowd are answering again a la 'Queenie Eye' and they sound even more trite on a song that at least pretends it's about something important even if it doesn't have anything of note to say.

'Hosanna', however, is superb, the quiet understated love song that joins so many of my favourite McCartney moments from 'Mother Nature's Son' on 'The White Album' to 'Venus and Mars' 'Love In Song', Press To Play's 'Footprints' and Off The Ground's 'Winedark Open Sea'. 'Hosanna' is simply a Biblical term for joy or something miraculous and as McCartney narrators have often told us, there's something spiritual and magical about love. An even better romantic song for Nancy than 'My Valentine', this is Paul letting his guard down and admitting his frailties, praising the new love of his life for giving him strength and that 'time is flying by us everyday'. Fittingly the whole song sounds like something out of the Radiophonic Workshop, some gritty backwards and droning effects giving us the sense that time is at least stopping still if not quite going into reverse. Eerie and unsettling, this gives a real edge to what would otherwise be a straightforward and perhaps slightly soppy love song so full marks to producer Ethan Johns for excelling himself here (if he could do the same on the next CSN album I'd be very grateful!) Simply beautiful, with a song that sounds like it's been around for at least a couple of generations matched by a lyric that doesn't try too hard and yet adds something a little deeper than simply saying 'I love you'. Hosanna indeed: the true McCartney is back with what's easily his best song to my ears since 2001, to be honest head and shoulders over everything else here. Of course I have to like this song though: someone's already pointed out to me how close both the backwards effects and melody are to my own 'Ocean's Smile' (see 'Alan's Songs' elsewhere on this site...)

' I Can Bet' is another of those 'nearly' songs where Macca gets to use his 'aggressive' voice for the first time in a while (it's the one he uses on 'Average Person' if you're enough of a fan to own the 'Pipes of Peace' album). Clearly worrying about his legacy again, Macca goes all Lennon-ish on us by telling us how great he is and how 'I can bet you'll never guess what I'm gonna do next'. That much is certainly true (who had money on 'Kisses On The Bottom' coming out last year, mainly dusty dusky cover songs from the days before Paul was born?) and certainly Macca's never put quite these ingredients (that voice, that production - by Giles Martin once again, that sing-songy tune, the postmodernist feel of a songwriter singing about his songwriting) together before. However we have individually had all of these pieces before so what we have here isn't so much 'I can bet you'll never guess' as 'it had to happen that all these styles would merge together eventually). This song isn't as repulsive as it might have been, with another classy tune that merges the two key influences on this album (imagine the Super Furry Animals' electronics let loose on a Gilbert O'Sullivan song and you'll be spot on), but even slightly tongue in cheek it's a bit much forking out good money to hear a singer-songwriter gleefully chuckle in our faces that we're too stupid to guess what's coming next. Hopefully what's coming next is a bunch of songs like 'Hosanna' rather than a bunch of songs like 'I Can Bet', which despite some good passages (and Giles Martins' second best production on the album) is another song full of empty bleating about nothing.

'Looking At Her' is a lot better. Another McCartney lesson in contrasts it divides it's time up between a laidback electronically treated falsetto on the verses and a sudden rush of rocky adrenalin on the choruses. While Macca's always been known for his story songs about 'made up people' , I'm tempted to see this as another song about his burgeoning romance with Nancy Shevell. We've already reflected on how strange it must have been to have a girlfriend who wasn't famous in her own right for the first time since at least 1961 (even demure Jane Asher wasn't exactly a stranger to the limelight, Linda was a photographer making quite a name for herself when the McCartneys met and Heather Mills - well, let's just say for all her good points she does rather like the sound of her own voice). The character in this song is humble, quiet, desperate to avoid attention - and yet the narrator can't take his eyes off her, 'losing my mind' as he becomes obsessed with her (hence the extreme contrasts in this song between her character and the turbulent way the narrator secretly feels). The 'louder' middle eight ('Doesn't she know? Why can't she see?...') is especially clever, Paul hinting at it for most of the song but only really dropping the listener right in the middle of his confused, crazy world some 90 seconds in. Overall this is a clever twist to McCartney's usual love songs, especially the idea that the attention is away from him for a change, and the lines about 'everybody looking at her' is a pretty good metaphor for what all the papers were doing when they suddenly announced their engagement the other year. Macca's vocal, even though it's treated by quite a few electronic effects again for the most part, is easily his best on the album, balancing the demure verses with his normal singing voice. All this song is missing to make it another carat gold classic is a slightly stronger melody (this song would sound nothing without the electronic effects to beef it up), but it's still a very clever song that's well performed and one that's so much better than the other 'pop' songs Macca's been giving us recently that it actually hurts!

'Road' is right up there too, another eerie atmospheric song that cuts a bit deeper than your average McCartney track. Many critics have been talking about this song as an update to 'The Long and Winding Road' (they both share the same metaphor of a life's journey as a 'road' full of twists and turns) but thematically it's closer to 'Lonely Road', the painful howl of loneliness from 'Driving Rain'. The mood isn't quite as intense this time around, but it's clear that the ten year stretch since writing that song was every bit as difficult as Macca feared it would be. Paul Epworth finally gets the production right in his third and final song for the album, making McCartney sound at a distance and with the feeling that the whole song is happening in slow-motion, with the sort of moody music usually used for slow-motion replays of car crashes or the JFK assassination when they're shown on the news. Perhaps that's because this song cuts so close: this is the first real chance Paul has had to sing about the Heather Mills years without being directly involved and he sounds both relieved and puzzled now that it's all over. There's never been a better couplet for the Heather Mills years than 'Two crazy partners scrambling in the dark' and in this context even Macca's lifelong cry that 'it's gonna be alright!' sounds like hopeless optimism rather than certainty. As ever with Macca, there are some pretty awful lyrics too (the line above rhymes with 'reaching for the sparks' for instance) and clearly no one can figure on a proper way to get the melody back to the beginning again once it reaches the end, so instead we have a rather odd 'duh-duh-duh doo-dum' riff that sounds out of kilter with the rest of the song and rather gets in the way. Still, though, the good points on this song far outweigh the bad and the ending is sublime, all the electronic noise we've heard on the rest of the album rising up out of nowhere and overpowering the gentle soothing harmonised 'oohs' (which sound pretty great but would have sounded better still with Denny Laine still singing along). 'Road', hopefully, bookends a rather difficult and anguished time for McCartney which dates back about 15 years now and it's to his credit than instead of hiding from it or using music as escapism from it (as Paul did so often in the mid 2000s) he's hit it head on here, admitting his doubts and frustrations but also his acceptance that this was the way his road was always going to be and that in some weird way he's all the better for the experience.

Perhaps that's why he truly bares his soul on 'Scared', the name most fans have given to the uncredited, unlisted song hidden away at the end of the album almost like an afterthought. It's easily the best use McCartney's made of this trick yet (see the fun but ultimately trivial White Album outtake 'Cosmically Conscious' from 'Off The Ground' and the flimsy, shoddy 'Freedom', which undoes much of the good work of Paul's longest album to date 'Driving Rain') and 'Scared' really ought to be made a full track proper. Heard alone with just his piano, Paul isn't hiding from all the electronic effects used to cover up his fading voice elsewhere on the record and his lyrics are equally revealing, the writer of 'Silly Love Songs' admitting that, even for him, saying 'I love you' to his loved ones is a very hard thing to do. Unusually structured, my guess is that this song started life as a poem - perhaps a sonnet - before being turned into music; the song's structure only makes sense if you compare each verse directly with each other (to get all English Language A Level with you for a second, the rhyming scheme is a rather complex ABCBB DECEE, which only really makes sense if you read it). Paul's lines about the pair's eyes 'connecting as if we met long ago' is very clever (he's known Nancy since at least 1990 although Linda was actually closer to her back then) and the way the last line simply fades away ('How much you mean to me now'), ravaged by the passage of time, is as great an ending to an album as you can ask for. 'Scared' sounds a difficult song to sing, never mind write, but full credit to McCartney for allowing such a revealing song onto the album and full marks too to Giles Martin's sensitive production which actually does very little except let McCartney sing it straight, the way he absolutely has to. As a footnote, assuming for the moment that this song really is named 'Scared' (because that's what everyone seems to be calling it) also means that, for the first time ever, there exists both a Lennon and McCartney song with the same name (you can find Lennon's equally moving effort on his 'Walls and Bridges' album).

Overall, then, I have to say I'm quite impressed by 'New'. It's not as brilliant from start to finish as 'Electric Arguments' was and any album that contains songs as poor as 'Queenie Eye' and 'Everybody Out There' is never going to get top marks, but this album has several great songs and some even greater ideas that didn't quite became great songs which shows that McCartney's imagination is still going strong after all these years. His voice isn't quite so strong, but luckily for the most part it's very cleverly disguised by electronic treatments that are both clever and quite adventurous, the album's four producers getting it right more often than they get it wrong. Of course when this album gets it wrong it gets it very very wrong - but at the same time there are a handful of songs here as great as anything released on past albums and after suffering both 'Chaos and Creation' and 'Memory Almost Full' I can't tell you how heartwarming writing that sentence is. Yes a couple of the songs are truly awful, even the better songs have sometimes dodgy rhymes that really should have been worked on and not every track judges either performance or production right. But for all its human mistakes, 'New' is a very likeable album and the second half especially bodes very well for what might come next, when 'New' is no longer the newest album. Certainly it's better than anything either Lennon or Harrison were giving us in their final days and the fact that McCartney still has so many 'new' things to say is a testament to just how naturally gifted he is. As we've seen, having music and lyrics pour out of you that naturally is a curse as well as a blessing and a good collaborator of Lennon's, Elvis Costello's, Eric Stewart's or Denny Laine's standing would probably have made it a better album still. But 'New' is still a good album, at times a great album, and well worth the welcome attention it seems to be getting at the moment. Overall rating: 7/10

'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' (1976)

'London Town' (1978)

'Back To The Egg' (1979)

'McCartney II' (Original Double Album) (1980)

'Tug Of War' (1982)

'Pipes Of Peace' (1983)

'Press To Play' (1986)

'Flowers In The Dirt' (1989)

'Driving Rain' (2001)
'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' (2005)

'Memory Almost Full' (2006)

'New' (2013)

The Best Unreleased McCartney/Wings Recordings

Surviving TV and Film Footage

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part One: 1967-1987

Live/Wings/Solo/Compilations/Classical/Unreleased Albums Part Two: 1987-1997

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part Three: 1997-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1970-1984

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1985-2015

Essay: Not So Silly Love Songs

Key Concerts and Cover Versions

1 comment:

  1. Apparently Queenie Eye was based on a 'game' Paul used to play in his childhood (as mentioned per Macca's Radio 2 in concert broadcast at the end of last year). I still can't find any mention of it anywhere though - do any of our readers have any more info for us?...