When was the last time you were excited about a Paul McCartney project? Never, you say? The last time “Macca” burped up anything decent you were in utero or a glint in your daddy’s eye? Well, shame on you for buying into the falsehood that McCartney is anything less than one of the founding fathers of all that we hold dear in modern popular music. Maddeningly inconsistent, yes. Sometimes follows the path of least resistance, yes. But this is the man who wrote the lines “Your day breaks/Your mind aches/You find that all her words of kindness linger on/When she no longer needs you.” Ridiculously simple, yet totally shattering. “Why she had to go/I don’t know/She wouldn’t say/I said something wrong/Now I long for yesterday.” Only three words there that are longer than one syllable. But each one perfectly chosen, and married to a melody that sounds like a whisper from the muses. That is a gift called “genius,” and flashes of that genius rise to the surface throughout his solo career with much greater frequency than he is given credit for.
McCartney has spent his career alternating between painstakingly crafted journeyman pop, and semi-improvised toss-offs. The former can be impressive, but more often somewhat labored. Albums like Flowers In The Dirt, Chaos & Creation In The Backyard, and Memory Almost Full get respectful three-star reviews and polite “refreshing-return-to-form” notices from the big-time magazines, but are written off by those who fancy themselves more cutting edge. Really, though, the worst that can be said about these releases is that McCartney is unapologetically playing it safe.
Luckily, there is the flip-side. The riskier McCartney, the one that doesn’t overthink. These off-the-cuff moments can be fun (The Beatles’ song “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” or the roots-rock album Run Devil Run), or painful (The entire Wings album Wild Life, where he repeatedly rolled tape on the the first idea that popped into his cannabis-addled brain, resulting in gibberish songs like “Bip Bop” and “Mumbo.”) What rescues even the worst of these efforts is his almost scary facility for creating melodies. McCartney leaks tunes the way the rest of us leak sweat.
His latest release is from his side project known as The Fireman. Electric Arguments is the third release produced from this collaboration between McCartney and former Killing Joke bassist (and Verve producer) Martin Glover, who has reinvented himself as the elcectronica artist known as “Youth.” McCartney and Youth’s first collaboration was a 1993 set of remixes using tracks from McCartney’s sub-par Off The Ground album, followed five years later by the all-original Rushes. Both were vocal-less, ambient sound experiments, and heard by practically no one. But the minute Paul lends his famous pipes to the mix, everyone sits up and takes notice. Electric Arguments is a throbbing, thoroughly modern journey through inner space, an electronic headphone classic that just happens to have been co-created by (and featuring the voice of) an honest-to-goodness Beatle. It definitely falls into the spontaneous category, with its 13 tracks created over 13 days, and having been released to the public late last November with virtually no publicity or promotion (it’s just a side project, after all.) Could it have been on my Best of 2008 list had I discovered it a little earlier? Very possibly. Is it a clear reminder never to give up on the promise of someone with a towering musical gift? Most definitely.