When Paul McCartney's latest solo album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, came out last year, it immediately garnered some of the best reviews the former Beatle has received in decades. But I was still skeptical. I thought of a moment from The Simpsons when Lisa says to Homer about his latest broken promise, "I'd like to believe you this time. Really I would."
At the same time, something McCartney said in a Q magazine interview around the time of the record's release stuck with me. Usually, he explained, his philosophy upon heading into the studio was something along the lines of, "I hope I make a good record." But this time, for various reasons, his attitude was more aggressive: "No, I'm going to make a good record."
[Funnily enough, I heard almost the exact same statement a few weeks while interviewing the Oregon Ducks' quartback for their 1994 Rose Bowl season, Danny O'Neil. Before that season, his senior year, O'Neil had gone 0-16 as a starter in games his team trailed at halftime. But suddenly in 994, the team had three dramatic come-from behind victories on its way to the Pac-10 championship and the penultimate college football bowl game. O'Neil told me the difference between Oregon's offense in his previous years, and the team that went to the Rose Bowl was that same passive versus active line of thought. He said the Duck offense went from hoping they'd make plays to saying, "We're going to go out and make the play, and it's up to the defense to try and stop us."]
But back to Paul McCartney.
During my childhood, The Beatles dominated my musical world. My mom had been a huge fan since their Ed Sullivan performance, and I remember many a family dinner with a Fab Four record playing on the turntable as the soundtrack. I also remember my mom playing Beatles records as she'd sit in the living room cross-stitching while my dad and I watched sports on TV. I got so into The Beatles myself that as a child I remember carrying around my Radio Shack tape recorder - that long flat kind - around with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing. It was a crappy recording I’d made with the tape recorder’s built in microphone, but I didn’t care.
In or out of The Beatles, I’ve always been particularly a Paul McCartney fan and defender. I never agreed with those who argue for John Lennon being the biggest resident genius in the band and McCartney only making what he self mockingly called “silly love songs”. McCartney owed a debt to Cole Porter as much as Elvis, which makes for a different kind of music than Lennon’s more straightforward rock leanings. But the list of McCartney treasures is too ridiculously long to even begin listing. (Although personal favorites include “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Fixing A Hole” “The Long and Winding Road”, “Martha My Dear”, and “The Fool on the Hill“.)
Still, I never found myself passionate or even that impressed with most of Paul McCartney’s solo albums. Sure, there are a lot of great individual McCartney songs made with Wings and in the ensuing years. But most of his albums I’d be almost outright embarrassed to have in my collection. “Say Say Say” and “Ebony and Ivory” haven’t aged too well.
But finally with Chaos and Creation in the Backyard I feel there’s a truly superb Paul McCartney album from start to finish. The opening track, “Fine Line” is the kind of sing along gem he used to turn out. Many other songs are fueled by melancholy and anger - precursors to the bitter divorce McCartney’s now experiencing with Heather Mills. “Riding to Vanity Fair”, for example, is a caustic take on his partner seeking fame when all he asked for was friendship.
What I also love about Chaos and Creation is that McCartney plays virtually all the instruments, something he did early in his solo career but hasn’t returned to much since he’s developed a loyal longtime touring band over the years. There’s an intimacy and simplicity that comes from his playing, and a unity of purpose. That also comes from producer Nigel Goodrich, with whom McCartney works with for the first time on this album but who has produced some classic Radiohead and Beck albums.
I still don’t know if I expect McCartney’s next album, whenever it appears in a couple years or so, to meet the level of this one. But I feel such a sense of thankfulness to have something that I didn’t even know was possible: a superb work from a musician far past his salad days. A musician in particular who can match the works of his youth is exceptionally rare, and the record bins are stocked with indulgent failures. Yet Chaos and Creation isn’t just good for an ex-Beatle approaching retirement age. It’s just good.