Poor Paul McCartney. He really does deserve far more in the way of deference than the British public have afforded him recently; he’s been treated as some kind of achingly uncool granddad – if, of course, your granddad happened to be the most successful recording artist in history.
His appearances at both the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee ‘concert’ and the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year were met with widespread derision, with only part of the blame being apportioned to his consistently dubious combination of hair dye abuse and that most egregious of fashion faux-pas – trainers with a suit. John Lennon shuffled off of this mortal coil long before his reputation could take the battering that McCartney’s advancing years have doled out to him, meaning that the latter’s seemingly impenetrable nice-guy image continues to be less appealing to the masses than Lennon’s numerous character flaws, to describe them charitably.
Having clearly spent many a long night coming up with such an imaginative title, McCartney’s release of New actually represents his first fresh conventional effort for a while; last year’s Kisses on the Bottom was largely a covers record, whilst Memory Almost Full was overshadowed by the circus that accompanied its status as the first release on Starbucks’ new label, even before we all found out that they’d never bothered paying any tax. He enlisted four producers to help him shape this new crop of songs – frequent Laura Marling collaborator Ethan Johns, Oscar-winning one-man pop factory Paul Epworth, George Martin’s son Giles, and Mark Ronson – we all know who he is, even if we’re not quite sure what he’s been up to since Back to Black.
According to McCartney himself, the original idea was that, during the sessions, one of the four would ‘reveal themselves’, as it were, as the true producer for the record, but that idea was apparently shelved, leaving us with a fairly diffuse set of songs. Interestingly, some of the more experimental efforts come courtesy of Martin; the spaced-out borderline electronica of “Appreciate” sounds like an attempt to bring McCartney’s The Fireman project to a more commercial audience, whilst “Everybody Out There” makes a bizarre left turn late on, with shouty vocals and thumping percussion.
Ronson took on two of the record’s best written, and most Beatlesesque, songs; “Alligator”’s subtle synths and gentle acoustic guitar represent that era far better than the deliberately quaint “On My Way to Work”, and the title track’s bouncy piano n’ handclaps foundation is perhaps the album’s biggest throwback, as well as a contender for its catchiest moment.
You can spot Johns’ influence a mile off, but he doesn’t really bring the same kind of warmth that he’s so adept at bathing Marling’s records in; “Early Days” sounds too bare, with an odd mismatch between frail harmonic backing and overdubbed guitars, and the religion-referencing “Hosanna” plods. It’s a record that flounders in this kind of quieter territory; “Queenie Eye” and “I Can Bet” aren’t classics, but their upbeat nature at least ensures that they don’t pass you by.
It would be genuinely interesting to see McCartney engaging with modern artists who’ve found success creatively as well as commercially – a recent NME cover saw him proclaim a desire to work with Thom Yorke – and “Road” provides an intriguing teaser of what might be if he ever made good on his promises to pursue those kinds of opportunities. He’s clearly been listening to Arcade Fire; the distorted vocals, in an unusually low register, are decidedly Butleresque, and both the piano and percussion recall the Montreal outfit, too.
That, ultimately, is where I’d like to see McCartney next time around; involving himself with vital, relevant alternative artists, rather than the pop-minded quartet he chose to work with here. That said, any new Paul McCartney record means new music from possibly the greatest songwriter in history, and it’s a sad state of affairs when you feel like you need to justify new material from the man; New probably won’t reverse the malaise that his public profile is slowly suffering in Britain, but it’s enjoyable fare all the same.