The knock against Paul McCartney’s body of work as a solo artist, particularly as contrasted with that of his former Beatle partner John Lennon, is that it is heedlessly sentimental, littered with trivialities, both verbal and melodic, that amount to so much musical doodling. Through the years Macca has engaged these charges, most wittily — and tunefully — with “Silly Love Songs,” his chart-topping 1976 hit with Wings. His steadfast defense of his hook-ridden aesthetic notwithstanding, charges of superficiality have continued to dog him, but maybe nothing has refuted them more eloquently, and with more innate musicality, than his latest studio album, “New.”
McCartney’s first full set of original material in six years was made with four producers, each of whom has succeeded in challenging him and getting him to take risks. Several of the record’s tracks feature trippy interludes that update the analog loops and effects heard on Beatles touchstones such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Revolver” for the digital age. “Road” evokes the ethereal electronica of the French duo Air, while the shuffling, new-wavey funk of “Appreciate” reminds us of what Prince gleaned from the Fab Four even as it reveals a debt to hip-hop production values and beats. (The former was helmed by Paul Epworth, who co-wrote and produced Adele’s smash “Rolling in the Deep”; the latter was produced by Giles Martin, son of Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ primary in-studio collaborator.)
“Save Us,” the record’s leadoff track, juxtaposes buoyant Beatles-style harmonies with the nervy rhythms and brittle electric sheen of latter-day garage punk. The orchestral opening of “Queenie Eye,” meanwhile, gives way to a bracing rock groove replete with rumbling “Lady Madonna”-like piano. “Alligator,” (produced by Mark Ronson, who helped turn Amy Winehouse into a star) which employs the old four-track recorder used in the making of “Abbey Road,” is powered by droning organ and fat-toned electric guitar.
More than just the mercurial sonics are affecting and original here; the lyrics, too, are anything but slapdash or off-the-cuff. “Looking at Her” presents a bereft lover who’s losing his grip, while “Everybody Out There” exhorts listeners to extend compassion to their poor and marginalized neighbors. “There but for the grace of God go you and I / Do some good before you say goodbye,” Sir Paul urges over a lively folk-rock cadence.
He spends a good bit of time here looking backward and appreciating the preciousness of life, which is hardly surprising for an artist in his 70s. “How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true,” he wonders in “On My Way to Work.” Intimacy and sex figure prominently in “Hosanna,” a nakedly emotional ballad in which the singer extends an invitation to a prospective lover that’s less “Let’s Spend the Night Together” than “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Hardly the stuff, in other words, of which silly love songs are made.
Among the tracks that are likely to resonate most with listeners is “Early Days,” a “Blackbird”-like ballad in which McCartney takes stock of how the Beatles continue to resonate with people today. (It’s produced by Ethan Johns, who helped turn Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon into stars.) “They can’t take it from me if they try / I lived through those early days,” he sings in a craggy but still supple falsetto. Later, in what almost qualifies as a fit of pique over the ceaseless parsing of the band’s legacy, he bristles, “Everybody seems to have their own opinion of who did this and that / But as for me I don’t see how they can remember when they weren’t where we was at.”
“Scared,” the album’s closer, sounds a more conciliatory note. “I’m scared to say ‘I love you,’ afraid to let you know,” Macca confesses over a hymn-like arrangement built around xylophone and gospel-steeped piano. On the face of things, he seems to be addressing a love interest. And yet when he goes on to add, referring to the words “I love you,” “The beautiful birds won’t fly out of their cage though I’m trying to set them free / Trying to let you see how much you mean to me,” his profession assumes greater public significance. Urgent and expressive, he sounds like he’s extending an olive branch to the millions, the world over, who treasure his brilliant contributions to pop music, both facile and profound.
Friskics-Warren is a freelance writer.