Slow Music Review: Paul McCartney – McCartney II

Well those last couple of posts were a little throwaway weren’t they? Blame a pre-election malaise. Don’t worry, it’s passed now and for better or worse the result has cleansed me with fire and re-focused my intentions. Musical intentions. On that note, what would you consider the well spring of your music collection? Which group or artist’s influence lies heavy over it all? Actually, come to think of it, those are pretty stupid questions as almost everything is influenced in someway by everything else. That said, there will no doubt be more than enough people who will immediately say The Beatles. They’re inescapable, especially if you grow up in the UK. Everyone has an opinion on them as a group and (rather perversely) even more people have opinions on them individually. Some will fight for Paul, others for John. A brave proportion will even claim Ringo to be the greatest drummer ever (for reals). Me? I’m a George fan. Or at least I’m a historical and cultural George fan. I’ve been thinking about the nature of favourites recently (in regards to my feelings for Bowie) and realised that your favourite doesn’t have to be your most liked. So many elements and emotions go into why we resonate with something that it has to go beyond merely liking what we hear. This is how I feel about George; I like his music, for sure, but I respect him far more as a man and what he did for culture (pretty much single handedly bringing Ravi Shankar to Western ears). This isn’t to diminish his music, he is responsible for some truly flawless songs both with and after The Beatles; I just like him for other reasons. So up until a week ago I’d have been on the fence between Lennon and McCartney; Lennon is now a myth (despite my best friend’s best efforts) whereas McCartney has actually lost the plot (have you heard the ‘collaboration’ between him, Kanye and Rihanna? Not good, bro). Nothing separated them. Then in a moment of post-election introspection, I let McCartney II play on. Hmm. Didn’t see that coming.

                         Unlike our boy Paul.

I’ve heard it said (and read in the music press) that were Lennon to still be alive today then he’d have grown into his counter-culture elder statesman role with grace and class. A kind of Lou Reed +1. Nah, I never bought it. Lennon liked the attention and wouldn’t have it in him to disappear and build a mystique on his own. He’d stumble as Paul stumbled and be discovered fallible. Anyways, this whole train of thought is built on the belief that John was the experimental one and Paul the cabaret. Paul would always write by the rules and John would wreck them; a theory long refuted by McCartney. Listening now to McCartney II, you can see his point. This is an album that is at once rooted in the songwriting tradition while at the same time pushes the boundaries beyond acceptable. Case in point (and the song that hooked me in): ‘Temporary Secretary’.

Now, you may react in any number of ways from sheer disgust to confusion to passionate love. Well, maybe not the last one (I’m not weird, honest), but it remains that this is a polarising song. It seems like Paul got a synth looping then free-styled a bizarro version of ‘Paperback Writer‘ as sung by Patrick Bateman. Yet it has a verse, a singable (just about) chorus and a middle 8 which, admittedly, comes twice. This song is tilted squarely at the avant-garde whilst painstakingly dragging tradition along with it. Like it or loathe it, you’ll likely have an opinion and, as I keep on ramming home, that is all that really matters. But this song isn’t the whole story; like the best Beatles albums it then shifts gear completely by dropping into the Blues groove of ‘On The Way‘. The way I see it, to gain the full affect from abstract music it needs to be contextualised. If you listen exclusively to the ‘artistic avant-garde’ then you quickly become numb and, for me, it loses interest. By following such insanity with the purest form of pop, McCartney has effectively pushed us out of the sauna into an icy plunge pool. The sensations of both experiences become enhanced. It makes me smile.

This is a tactic McCartney employs throughout the album and it gives him the creative freedom needed to write some utterly compelling music. ‘Waterfalls‘ is subtle and beautiful and reminiscent of some of Brian Eno’s more ‘popular’ music (‘Julie With…‘); ‘Nobody Knows‘ is a lost cousin to ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?‘; ‘Darkroom‘ is just a sweet nutty groove and ‘Bogey Wobble‘ (found on the 2011 remaster) is, as my bro Dan points out, proto-Dubstep. It’s an album that shows Paul is at least as modern and experimental as John could be. It also probably means that John was at least as traditional as Paul. To think that I’d written McCartney off as a reactionary dinosaur; that’s what the prevailing winds had me believe. Yet in this utterly amazing collection recorded on his own in Scotland we find McCartney reveling in the uncertainty of the future. It. Is. Just. So Good.

Well played, Paul. Well played.

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3 thoughts on “Slow Music Review: Paul McCartney – McCartney II

  1. DrewG says:

    Why are people so damn hard on Paul? At 73 years old, he just collaborated with a critically acclaimed rap artist and produced a pop song that has been in the top 20 for weeks, and already has countless covers all over YouTube. It’s obviously a good song with staying power (whether you personally like it or not). Who else has done that at age 73 but Paul? Why is that a bad thing? Or a misstep?

    And Paul’s last album, in fact, his last few albums have been really good — as good as Dylan’s late-career work, as good as Bowie’s late-career work. And yet, again, I see the mention here about the “prevailing” opinion that McCartney has “lost the plot” … (yada yada yada). Lost what plot?

    Then again maybe I’m the crazy one. I don’t get the admiration for George Harrison’s solo work at all. His first solo album is just plain dull. My Sweet Lord is a far worse dirge than Imagine, and not as musically complex as the Frog Chorus. Plus, George is preaching on behalf of a cult in that song. No thanks, George. Mostly though, I just find his solo music utterly boring. And I can’t stand the hypocrisy of writing songs about the importance of humility and the dangers of “living in a material world” from the confines of your 120-room mansion on your massive estate. Just a wee bit of hypocrisy there. As Ethan Hawke recently put it so well, referring to Harrison’s solo work, “Everyone has a spiritual side but no one wants to listen to your spiritual side for more than 6 minutes.” Heh.

    Which brings me to McCartney II. Yes, it’s brilliant. Period. But so is Ram. Ignore all of Paul’s midcareer dreck. Some music is best forgotten. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why people don’t see McCartney’s brilliance on his best solo stuff: records like Ram, McCartney, McCartney II, and more recently on Chaos and Creation and his Fireman stuff.

    Has any artist ever been so gifted yet so misunderstood and so disliked for such superficial reasons?

    Like

    • rryrry says:

      You know, writing this post and listening to this album made me pretty aware of how prevalent the anti-Paul lobby is. I think it probably grew out of the Lennon-McCartney fan rivalry and this image built of John as some new-age totem. As unfortunate as his death was, it did give him an opportunity to not diminish peoples expectations of him in the way Paul’s mid-career and Bowie’s mid-career did. It kinda gave him a free pass and gave his fans the ability to build myths of a future that could never be. I see your point about George’s music (the hypocrisy of them all is not lost on me), that’s why I said he was my favourite (which makes me sound like a fanboy) but not my most liked. When it comes to Paul I’ve always seriously respected him live, a solid showman who can keep up with anyone (Helter Skelter at Live 8 comes immediately to mind). Album wise, not so much.

      As for losing the plot, well I suppose I mean that the living myth of Paul (as opposed to the dead myth of John) and his past doesn’t exist anymore. Not to me. I wasn’t there in the beginning so can only go on the myth. Can only go on what has been read and what has been done. This is why McCartney II grabbed me because it was an album that showed a full talent and full appreciation for the album as an artistic form. It was giddy inducing. When I think of now I see a man performing the (admittedly phenomenal) hits around the world and then releasing (again, personal opinion) pretty uninspiring singles via Starbucks (Dance Tonight didn’t get me either) and then the Kanye collaboration. The myth of the Paul that I respect (which, being a construct of my own making, I am wholly responsible for) has gone. That’s the problem with artists who are so huge, we expect so much from them.

      I would be careful in claiming top 20 positions and Youtube covers as a sign of a song’s staying power. A song’s staying power can only be judged from the future looking back at the past. There are so many variables that it is impossible to predict. Also it is debatable how much influence Paul had in it bar that repetitive guitar line. That said, I’ll gladly be proved wrong.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Like

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