Published: October, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
Back to his roots
By Michael Fortes

Perhaps if it were Paul McCartney who was gunned down in 1980 instead of John Lennon, the cute Beatle would have more respect today. McCartney II would be hailed as a subversive faux-new-wave-techno-pop masterpiece, Ram would be competing with Revolver on every other hip critic's "Best Albums Of All Time" list, and maybe "Silly Love Songs" would be considered classic rather than crap.

Instead, Paul's life was spared, and as his bank account swelled, his standing has been shaky with the critics. For example, even though the All Music Guide gives 1973's Band On The Run a more than respectable 4 and a half stars, resident blow-hard Stephen Thomas Erlewine couldn't resist the temptation to throw in a jab: "there's little of real substance on the record. No matter how elaborate the production is, or how cleverly his mini-suites are constructed, Band on the Run is nothing more than a triumph of showmanship."

Well, Paul has a new chance now at some real respect as a solo artist since nearly everyone has forgotten the tight band interplay on Driving Rain, the rockin' fervor of Run Devil Run, and the outstanding Elvis Costello collaborations on Off The Ground and Flowers In The Dirt. What we seem to want is some heartfelt honesty and realism, right?

Well, producer Nigel Godrich seems to have discovered how to get that sort of material out of Sir Paul on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard.

In the DVD documentary "From Chaos To Creation" included with the deluxe edition of Chaos, Paul found himself in the position of being asked by Nigel, "why don't you play drums on this?" and on down to almost every other instrument, barring the occasional string arrangement. This fit into Nigel's agenda to "make an album that's you," as Paul put it. And as Nigel saw it, this was really the only way to get the essence of Paul onto record. This was the approach that made McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980) two of his most exciting records.

"He's such a heavyweight, he needs people to spar with," Nigel said, insightfully adding that "those people don't exist."

And well, maybe Nigel is right that Paul has no peers, excepting perhaps Elvis Costello, who Paul himself has likened to John Lennon because of his way with words and his Liverpudlian heritage. But after listening to BBC2's radio special "Sold On Song," in which Paul played a mix of old and new songs for a small audience inside Abbey Road studios, it became clear that fans in close proximity also are a great friend to Paul when he's in a rocker mood. His performance of Chaos's first single, "Fine Line," suddenly leaped beyond the clean, controlled rock of the studio version into a rock n' roll celebration that came off sounding like what the Beatles' Let it Be sessions would have sounded like if everyone really wanted to be there. He put a light, humorous affect into his vocal performance, and the song's true potential really came through.

So how did Nigel get involved? Why George Martin, naturally! Since Martin himself no longer produces, Sir Paul relates in the DVD documentary, he sought the former Beatles producer's recommendation for a new producer.

Nigel, of course, is responsible for career-best albums by Beck (Sea Change) and Radiohead (OK Computer, Kid A), among others.

"My initial reaction was one of terror," Nigel recalls of his being asked to produce Sir Paul in the documentary, "because I wasn't really sure how willing he would be to get his hands dirty." That and, of course, this is Paul McCartney we're talking about here.

This eventually translated to, as Paul himself put it, that Nigel "refused to let me sing songs he didn't like." This might come as a great relief to all those who have accused Sir Paul of having a poor track record in the quality control department since the demise of the Beatles.

To Nigel's credit, he did allow Paul's organic sounds to dominate the record and kept his own trademarks to a minimum. The only other real rocker on the album, "Promise To You Girl," bears Nigel's stamp via some glockenspiel. Otherwise, Paul recalls the shuffle of Band On The Run's "Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five" in his able drumming, and reaches back further to recall The Beatles' Abbey Road classic "Because" in the song's introductory harmonies.

Elsewhere, Nigel's studio mastery helped elevate one particularly heartfelt song to a new level. "Riding to Vanity Fair" started as a typical mid-tempo McCartney number, as demonstrated in the DVD. But after Nigel worked his magic, it came out sounding like an outtake from Beck's Sea Change.

And though Paul's attempt at doing Ray Charles on "The Long And Winding Road" may have turned out differently than he imagined it would be back in 1969, "Friends To Go" could be credited to George Harrison circa 2000 and everyone would believe it.

Other familiar McCartney moments are scattered throughout the album, like "Jenny Wren," deliberately written with the style of the White Album's "Blackbird" in mind. "English Tea" does a playful parody of British high society to a musical arrangement that recalls Revolver's "For No One." "At The Mercy" joins sections of the song with a piano-based chord progression that recalls the main riff of Tug Of War's "Wanderlust," a song Paul wrote when he was at the mercy of a narc. And so on. In other words, there's enough familiar sounding music here to balance the newness of it all.

That's not to say it's an "immediately accessible" album. Paul actually steers clear of hook-laden pop songs here, and only 2 are rockers. So it takes a good amount of listens before the album starts to feel comfortable. And since he's put more thought into the lyrics of these songs than he did on his last two studio albums of all original material, it makes repeated listening not just enjoyable, but enriching.

And that last point is key. When you listen to this album, once is not enough. Not just for understanding, but for pleasure. It's inviting ("come on brother, all is forgiven"), it's satisfying ("this is the way it should be"), it's comforting ("sigh as you brush away your sorrow"), and since it's heartfelt and light on fluff ("I keep hoping for friendship / but I wouldn't dare to presume it was there / while you were riding to vanity fair") but not without some humorous moments (hear that little doggy after he sings "no more barking up the tree" in "Promise To You Girl"?), it's entirely respectable.

I think we might have a classic here.