For a man pronounced dead by radio DJs back in the late Sixties, Paul McCartney (or his doppelganger) has has a long and productive life. And musically diverse, as the Nineties proved: classical, pop-rock, balls-out rock'n'roll, acoustic sets, experimental electronica . . .
Not a bad track record late in a long career. And in the new millennium he showed no signs of slowing down, either on the touring front or in the studio. He might have resorted to a rather bad dye-job on the mop-top and looked tired around the eyes (if nothing else his wife of almost 30 years had died in '98 we must remind ourselves), but creatively he dragged that spirit of the Nineties along into a new decade . . . but with little initial commercial success.
Maybe by this time there was just too much (and too much diverse) McCartney in the world? Fortunately some critics were still listening and pointing to his most interesting albums, of which there were a few . . .
Liverpool Sound Collage (2000)
Now this is how to kick off a decade and confuse those who might have written you off as an irrelevance.
McCartney's most ambitious, inventive and most overlooked side-project to date was this, for which he let loose himself, Super Furry Animals and Youth on studio tapes and other Beatles/McCartney material to create a remarkable cut-up, snatch'n'sample collection of five very different pieces.
It was nominated in the best alternative album category at the 2001 Grammys.
Although the category was won by Radiohead with Kid A (it included the likes of Beck, Fiona Apple and the Cure) the Liverpool Sound Collage was by far the most "alternative" album up for consideration. McCartney was robbed, albums don't come much more alternative than this.
More than he would do later with the Twin Freaks album of 2008 (see below) in which he only kept a watching brief, here he was a hands-on inventor and collaborator for the most part. His ears and instincts were excellent and it knocks Lennon's Revolution #9 sideways.
Using the studio as an instrument he explored sonic effects, variable tape speeds, Beatles studio chatter, voices of people in the street, bits from his Oratorio, rumbling bass and backwards drums . . . Alarmingly good in places, although ironically the Super Furry Animals' 17 minute sonic experiment on Peter Blake 2000 is the most clever.
Coming between a classical album and a double album pop-rock retrospective, it not only sounds nothing like the work of the man who did either, it sounds much more like an art school project by someone on the cutting edge of sonic collage. Quite extraordinary.
Wingspan, Hits and History (2001)
Interestingly, despite the title, this double disc was solely credited to McCartney although obviously it drew from Ram (originally credited to Paul and Linda McCartney) and Wings. The hits disc is largely predictable, but the other disc was made up of some of his favourites which he had and would continue to return to either in concert or as source material in side projects (Let Me Roll It, Maybe I'm Amazed, Junk, Every Night).
The US edition at last featured on a collection Wings' exciting live version of Coming Up.
It sold remarkably well (people didn't need reminding how huge Wings had been) and the tie-in television doco of the same name doubtless drove sales.
Driving Rain (2001)
The urgency which drove his excellent Run Devil Run album prompted a faster working pace on this album, but unfortunately the results weren't anywhere near as compelling.
He'd met Heather Mills and, being in love again, that feeling infuses (some might say infects) the lyrics: so what you get are words as lightweight in places as that McCartney solo debut of '70 but with none of its low-key charm.
However on tracks like the weirdly psychedelic She's Given Up Talking (with disembodied voices, swirling David Gilmour-like guitar from David Kahne) he conjures up some real magic, and he lets himself go on a love song with balls and blistering guitar on About You. Back in the Sunshine Again is a jagged, almost bluesy rocker which belies its lyrics, very cool indeed. Heather to his new love is interesting in a Band on the Run/Broad Street way.
Riding into Jaipur with tamboura was a rare (and too infrequent) digression into a profitable area of Indo-influenced drone-rock. You always wonder why he never did more in this area. Didn't want to impose on the territory of George Harrison, who died later this year?
His pop-smarts come through on the title track where he unleashes his more edgy vocals (but on lyrics as demeaning as "1-2-3-4-5, let's go for a drive" etc), but love ballads like I Do and Your Loving Flame always remind of that scene in The Rutles where his character hammers piano chords for a bored wife while singing "I love you, oooho . . . oohoo, it's you I love . . ."
So songs like Magic ("it must have been magic, the night we met") are ill-becoming the man who wrote Eleanor Rigby, She's Leaving Home and so on. Too many like that, and as in the Eighties the arranging attempts to cover the manifest lyrical and melodic weaknesses.
As so often in his career, he needed an editor or someone to say, "No!"
There was a hidden track which was fiery and controversial: on 9/11 McCartney, sitting in a plane on the tarmac in New York, saw what happened at the Twin Towers, and righteously enraged he wrote Freedom as a gut response. It was too late to get it acknowledged on the album cover which was already in print, but he insisted on putting it at the end of the album: it was recorded live in New York and polished up in the studio.
It is lyrically simple -- "this is my right, a right given by God, to live a free life, to live in freedom, talking about freedom, I will fight for the right to live in freedom" -- but in the context of the year and the times (and with stinging guitar) is was highly effective.
Didn't redeem a fair-to-middling album however.
Back in the US (2002); Back in the World (2003)
Although it is easy to be slightly cynical about McCartney's willingness to deliver yet another live album after yet another tour, you have to also concede that it is remarkable he has remained in such great voice over the decades.
On these two -- which came with a slightly different track listing for Back in the World -- he covers a lot of Beatles territory (always smart to deliver songs he hadn't previously on live albums, here Hello Goodbye, Carry That Weight and others) plus his Wings-era rockers (Jet, Let Me Roll It, C Moon) as well as tribute to George Harrison (he does Something on ukulele, Harrison latter years instrument of choice) as well Here Today for John Lennon.
Unsurprisingly the US double disc sold extremely well, although ironically the World version didn't do as much chart damage in the world, except in the UK.
To hear McCartney belt through All My Loving and I Saw Her Standing There with boyish enthusiasm, or play Eleanor Rigby, The Fool on the Hill and Yesterday is always going to be marketable.
But these albums are better than your finely honed cynicism might allow. The man, as he proved on Run Devil Run, can rock.
Twin Freaks (2005)
There had really been nothing quite like this in McCartney's broad catalogue, and it wasn't in it for long. This double vinyl with cover art by McCartney, who was starting to have his own exhibitions by this time, was almost immediately deleted or snapped up.
Pity. This was McCartney's material remixed and mashed by DJ Freelance Hellraiser, aka Roy Kerry, and it is an exceptional and interesting collision of disparate McCartney tracks in the manner of an even more weirdly
constructed sound collage, doubtless inspired by the Beatles Love remix album which by this time was well underway and would appear the following year.
McCartney may have had less of a hand in this than we might think. He certainly gave permission for use of the material and acted as executive producer, but how much time he spent in the studio is debatable. But it may be that he guided it fairly closely and if so he, as he so often does, went back to some of his very early Seventies albums (McCartney, Ram, Wildlife) for source material but here mashed them with samples from elsewhere.
The Long Haired Lady track (originally from Ram) for example hooks in the guitar from Oo You (off McCartney); and Oh Woman Oh Why (originally the B-side to Another Day) incorporates Band on the Run guitars, Venus and Mars vocals and bass from his oddball Loup off Red Rose Speedway. Live and Let Die is just a looped sample of a few seconds over disembodied voices and guitars from other albums.
As Carl Magnus Palm wrote: "it doesn't make the mistake of trying to force McCartney's music into a dance
music environment, but nor does it walk on eggshells around his reputation as a
music legend. It's more a like a confrontation between Roy Kerr and the Paul
McCartney archives: it transcends the format of the traditional remix album to
create a truly inspired collage of sounds, musical riffs and rhythms".
Perhaps not an official entry in the McCartney discography, but like Thrillington in '77, it couldn't have existed without him and his music.
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
Curiously, some hailed this as a return to form (another?) but it really doesn't stack up: the wimpy ballads and thanks to Heather for making him happy again sound remarkably twee and the musical embellishments again try to cover up the weaknesses.
However a lot of people liked at and it was nominated for a number of Grammys and did well in the charts in the UK, largely on the strength of its two best songs, Fine Line and the Beatlesque Jenny Wren. There are some fine tracks, not the least the hidden one after Anyway which hints at The Fireman's style.
The song Friends to Go was apparently inspired by the late George Harrison's easy style (it sounds it) and English Tea is delightful slice of pastoral whimsy with a string ensemble and takes McCartney back to the Penny Lane period.
So some good stuff, just not enough of it. Nice cover though, a shot of "our kid" when he was teenager by his brother Mike (McGear) McCartney.
Ecce Cor Meum (2006)
Sorry, but you are on your own on this one, another classical album. This time an oratorio in four movements which he had been commissioned to write, but which was delayed by the death of Linda, and doubtless the relationship with Heather.
This was his most critically successful and popularly received album in the genre and he picked up nice notices (best album at the Classical Brits) and significant sales (number two in the US classical charts) so it seems there might have been something going on there.
But you might wonder just how much of the Latin text, let alone the orchestration, that McCartney was deeply involved with.
Memory Almost Full (2007)
From the title to the reflective nature of many lyrics this -- McCartney’s 21st post-Beatles release, not counting live albums, classical digressions, compilations etc -- could be read as his public swansong.
He considers his life on the energetic That Was Me; in an aching falsetto You Tell Me he wonders about those perhaps mythical summers of yesteryear; and the poignant if lyrically clunky The End of the End asks that “on the day that I die I’d like jokes to be told.”
In fact these songs were written in 2003, which placed them in a period of happiness with his then-new wife Heather Mills -- the subject of the irritatingly twee See Your Sunshine, and the yelping Gratitude. Both are heavily embellished but at core sound like knock-offs of the kind which have always burdened his solo work, proving again he still needs an editor. Although their inclusion after their break-up shows McCartney was not one to waste a useful idea.
Dance Tonight is a polite rocker driven by mandolin, the eccentric Mr Bellamy could have come from Magical Mystery Tour, Vintage Clothes is a jaunty rocker, and the breezy Feet in the Clouds crams a lot of musical ideas into three and a half minutes. All interesting more than essential however.
Again solo McCartney is irritatingly uneven but at its best -- the blistering Only Mama Knows and House of Wax especially, which recalled that vital period in the early 70s -- this proved he could still sometimes shoulder-tap his muse.
The album actually did very well, largely perhaps because of the deal he signed with Starbucks' Hear Music imprint which guaranteed not only massive airplay in Starbucks stores on the day of release but also huge publicity. More people heard or knew about this McCartney album than had in many years.
Electric Arguments (2008)
This new Fireman album was a major departure from the electro-ambient sampling of its predecessors on many levels: it is the first to acknowledge McCartney and Youth on the cover; the first to have McCartney vocals prominent (the opener is a throat-searing slice of crunching boogie rock closer to the White Stripes live and reminds you this man delivered I'm Down); and it is also the first to get serious media attention.
Plaudits came thick and heavy: Zane Lowe at BBC Radio 1 called it "just awesome"; Pitchfork spoke of it being "vamping, Zeppelin-esque"; Clash called it "a staggering collection of timeless adventures that touch on the best aspects of today's more leftfield sounds".
Maybe. It certainly starts in fine fashion but almost immediately becomes (an admittedly leftfield) McCartney album with Two Magpies which sounds like an oddball version of Blackbird and Macca's music hall tendencies in alt.folk mode.
But although wobbly (Light From Your Lighthouse is knock-off campfire-country processed into light electronica) there's quite a lot going on here: Sing the Changes is a big and uplifting U2-framed ballad (suitably scratched up however, would work on alt.radio) and Travelling Light is weirdly pastoral.
The final half is the strongest and most interesting: Lifelong Passion and Is This Love? are dreamy Indo-alt.folk; Lovers in a Dream is suitably clouded in the whiff of the jazz cigarettes he favours; Universal Here, Everlasting Now sounds like it has drifted in from a Floyd-like late Sixties Happening with oil-lamp projections (and could be the title of a new Oasis album!); and the closer has backward guitars, incense-infused bass lines and ambient textures . . .
There's even a hidden few minutes of electro-wooshery two minutes after the final track. Another one for the conversation pit.
Electric Arguments is still a Paul McCartney pop album in too many places: optimism is endemic; the ordinary Sun is Shining could have come from any of his solo albums in the past two decades; Dance 'til We're High is a Spector-lite soft-hearted ballad . . .
But mostly this was a much more interesting McCartney than we have been used to when he's just being McCartney.
In his late 60s you have to say it: Youth becomes Paul McCartney.
Good Evening New York City (2009)
Another decade ends. And a new one begins?