Chaos Best Paul McCartney Album in Years

After years of mostly lackluster recordings, critics agree that Paul McCartney’s latest release, “Chaos,” is worthy of the Hall of Famer.

McCartney’s New Album Deemed Best in Years (AP)

It sounds cruel, but let’s face it: Except for the occasional highlight like “Vanilla Sky” or “My Brave Face,” for the past 20 years, Paul McCartney’s catalogue has been pretty barren. So the former Beatle wanted to make his new solo album, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” stand out. “I decided to lay it on the line for myself and challenge myself and say, ‘You’re going to make a good album here.’ It was a good motivator,” he told The Associated Press.

Time magazine breathlessly declared “Chaos” to be McCartney’s first album that matters since the Beatles broke up 35 years ago. But it’s simply unlike anything he’s done before, a quiet disc with complicated emotional shadings — the album that generations of critics who derided his sunny, silly love songs have been asking him to make. He’ll never be mistaken for Nine Inch Nails. But the heartache of “Too Much Rain” and smoldering anger of “Riding to Vanity Fair” are unusual for McCartney. When the 63-year-old struggles for the notes in the “Blackbird” successor “Jenny Wren,” he even sounds fragile.

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McCartney also was pushed by the blunt Nigel Godrich, a producer known for his work with Radiohead and Beck. His method was to force the music legend out of his comfort zone. McCartney brought his touring band in to record; after two weeks Godrich dispatched them. Much like he did with his very first solo album, McCartney played virtually every instrument himself — on “Friends to Go” alone, he’s credited on the grand piano, acoustic/bass/electric guitars, harpsichord, drums, tambourine, flugelhorn, melodica and shakers. Producer and artist particularly clashed on “Riding to Vanity Fair,” which McCartney brought in as a fast song and Godrich kept trying to slow down. “There were one or two moments on the album when I had to think to myself, `You know, I could just fire this guy,'” McCartney said.

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Obviously he never set out to log many years of lackluster recordings. “You’re not really aware of that,” he said. “You can maybe get a little complacent, or you’re not hitting a good patch, or you can think it’s great and it isn’t. There are a multitude of reasons why.”

For a man who seemingly tumbled out of bed every morning of his youth with a brilliant melody, the struggles were painful to listen to. Think “Freedom.” What was once effortless seemed forced. Writing songs isn’t necessarily harder for him as he gets older, McCartney said. And for whatever reasons — time, a happy remarriage and new fatherhood — he feels he’s writing better than he has in a long time. “I still have this deep love for melody in particular and writing songs,” he said. “It isn’t any more difficult. Obviously what made it easier then was writing with John (Lennon). He was such a great collaborator. The two of us were on fire every time we sat down to write. “If he was stuck, I knew that I could help him out and vice versa. We normally sat down for three hours and bingo, a pretty good song came out. We never had a dry session. Every time we sat down, we came out with a song.” That happened up to the end; Lennon even asked for advice on “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” he said. “We’re not stupid,” McCartney said. “We knew a good thing.”

Yet it put in place the essential dilemma of his solo years. McCartney seems to intrinsically understand the value of a strong collaborator, but what can compare when you’ve had a partnership for the ages?

McCartney had some excellent solo work, most notably “Band on the Run.” But there’s no denying that those years with Lennon produced their best work. Solo Lennon lacked the grounding that the more “normal” McCartney brought and solo McCartney lacked the drive for experimentation Lennon brought.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.