WITH their previous releases, "Paul McCartney II" and "The Fox," Paul McCartney and Elton John seemed to hit impasses in long and often sterling careers as pop tunesmiths. McCartney gave in to self-produced excess, John to boredom and inertia. The resulting albums got little air play, and neither even broke into the Top 10.

So fans could be excused for greeting their new albums with a hesitation bordering on the contempt many critics have expressed for years toward these two comfortable, now middle-aged rock stars. Critics, who seem to be the only species growing younger, have never forgiven McCartney or John for growing up, growing out of their insecure beginnings, growing happy even as they were growing rich. It's as if all that is an affront to the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Of course it is; both songwriters have proven before, and now prove again, that they really come out of the pop tradition.

"Tug of War" (Columbia TC37452) is McCartney's best overall work since 1974's "Band on the Run." It confirms his masterful melodic skills and sense of pop dynamics, affirms the calm he's been able to achieve with his family. It becomes an album, not of silly love songs, but about loving--family, friends, mankind. McCartney sounds like a man who has nothing to prove, but who still has the urge--and the means--to sing his mind. It just happens to be a satisfied mind. As he sings on "Dress Me Up as a Robber," "What's the point of changing/when I'm happy as I am?"

This is McCartney's first project since the murder of his friend and partner, John Lennon, and while there is only one overt tribute, "Here Today," the album abounds with thoughts about their relationship. On the title cut, a somber and beautiful ballad that overcomes some unnecessary orchestration, McCartney, full of regret, sings, "We expected more/but with one thing or another/we were trying to outdo each other/in a tug of war . . . I can't let go/If I do you'll take a tumble/and the whole thing is going to crumble/It's a tug of war."

"Here Today," another gorgeous ballad, strongly echoes the Beatles' "Yesterday," not only in its melody but in its simple use of a string quartet behind an acoustic guitar. It's both an echo and a farewell:

And if I said

I really knew you well

What would your answer be?

If you were here today

Here today.

Well, knowing you

You'd probably laugh and say

That we were worlds apart

If you were here today

Here today

But as for me

I still remember how it was before

And I am holding back the tears no more

I love you.

McCartney accepts Lennon's combative spirit to the end and embraces the warmer memories. There's also a sense of sadness over never having become close again. It's a poignant and almost mawkish sentiment, but I can't think of anyone with a right to challenge it.

With the return of former Beatles producer George Martin, "Tug of War" covers its shortcomings with familiarity: the panpipe gentility of "Somebody Who Cares" evokes "Michelle"; "Take It Away" suggests a reggae-ish Buddy Holly, while the bouncy but slight "Ballroom Dancing" and "The Pound Is Sinking" revive the spirit of "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." Overall, Martin adds little that hasn't been heard on McCartney's self-produced albums or on the classic Beatles albums of the late '60s.

The superstar sessions are a mixed bag (Ringo's on one cut, but you'd have to read the liner notes to notice), from the flaky folkabilly duet with Carl Perkins ("Get It") to the two Stevie Wonder collaborations. The insipid "Ebony and Ivory," currently ruling the airwaves, is a pretty melody wrapped in the naive metaphor of the piano. It's obviously McCartney's song, the words too terse and sentimental for Wonder. Contrast it with "What's That You're Doing," which reportedly grew out of a jam session following the recording of "Ebony and Ivory." "What's That" is certainly the most cooking cut on the album despite being overdubbed; deep it's not, but it allows McCartney to cut loose in "Let It Be" fashion.

The most moving song on Elton John's "Jump Up" (Geffen GHS 2013) is also a tribute to John Lennon. "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," with lyrics by Bernie Taupin, may be the most mesmerizing remembrance yet:

As the New York sunset disappeared

I found an empty garden among the brownstones there

Who lived here?

He must have been a gardener that cared a lot

Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop

But now it all looks strange

It's funny how one insect

Can damage so much grain . . . and we are so amazed, we're crippled and we're dazed

A gardener like that one, no one can replace.

"Jump Up" is Elton John back in the form that made him such a joy during the first half of the '70s; there's nothing particularly trendy or format-directed on this album, simply the exuberant grace epitomized in John's faultless phrasing and piano playing. There are several slight songs--"I Am Your Robot," "Princess" and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone"--but they're spaced between some great songs, the best of which are "Ball and Chain," "Blue Eyes," "Spiteful Child," "Legal Boys" and "All Quiet on the Western Front."

"Ball and Chain," with Pete Townshend playing guitar, is bright and bouncy, as if the Searchers were doing a Buddy Holly tune. On "Blue Eyes," John sounds a tone deeper than usual, essaying into a simplistic, neo-country-ish remembrance of something good.

"Spiteful Child" is ebullient in its bitchiness, while the brassy sadness of "Legal Boys" recalls the "Yellow Brick Road" era. Both songs are about separation, divorce, lost connections, but from decidedly different perspectives. On "Child," John spits out Taupin's lyrics over rollicking rock piano--"I don't want to worry you none but I got the hurt on the run . . . watching you tear out your hair is gonna be the best part." He's more contrite and confused on "Legal Boys" (lyrics by Tim Rice): "I would rather call you darling/than defendant in the case/but lovers left here long ago/and clients took their place."

"All Quiet on the Western Front" is also about loss, but the stakes are universal rather than personal. It's "Norma Jean" extended to the victims of old men's dreams, "youth asleep in the foreign soil, planted by the war." Taupin has come up with his best lyrics in years, and they're framed by a desolate aural landscape whose elegiac melody and heartfelt delivery don't obscure the sadness of the song: "Male angels sigh/ghosts float in a flooded trench, as Germany dies/fever reaps the flowers of France, fair-haired boys/string the harps to Victory's voice, joyous noise/All quiet, all quiet, all quiet on the Western front."

So, Elton John and Paul McCartney are back, their voices as distinctive as ever. Because it's all surface pop, listeners to these new albums will get back only what they put in. Don't listen for innovation, listen for craft; don't listen for anger, listen for experience. The good moments are there, and they're better than they have been for either artist in quite some time.