published: 21 /
In the latest in his Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll series, Ben Howarth tells how, in the recent barren summer drought for music, he has taken comfort from Paul McCartney's recent album 'Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard'
Quick off the mark as ever, I have been listening a lot to Paul McCartney’s new album, 'Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard', in recent weeks. I say "new" album, but as it was actually released nearly a year ago, it now has no more significance for most of the music industry than the Palaeozoic era has for students of Modern History. Yes, it got the usual attention upon its release,a few positive reviews and a few negative reviews, but the critics still seem unsure how to handle the ex-Beatle, presumably because he sees no need to pander to their high-minded notions of what ‘rock and roll’ should mean.Quickly, the album was forgotten and didn’t even get any mentions when McCartney’s marital problems brought him back into the headlines a few months ago. No doubt this will join most of his back catalogue in the summer sales,and, if you haven’t done so already, I strongly suggest you buy it.
In the summer months, if you’re among the majority that have outgrown festivals, there is precisely nothing going on, making this a perfect time to reinvestigate an underplayed album. I probably only played it four or five times in the weeks after I bought it, but having written glowingly about the work of Wings in this space last month, I decided to go back to 'Chaos and Creation'. And I’m glad I did, because this is a fantastic piece of work, the sort of album that you only notice if you really want to. Like the best of his music, some of these songs have a vicious catchiness to them, and having found their way into your head they will hang around like a particularly nasty infection. The sheer relief of enjoying a new piece of music has sometimes made me over-praise things on this site, but I’m reasonably sure I’m right about this album, and I think I’ll still be listening to it in several years time.
Much of the album’s successes are due in part to Nigel Godrich, one of the few producers who can claim to be as talented and versatile as McCartney’s mentor, George Martin (it was Martin, after all, who advised McCartney to work with the man behind The Man Who). There’s nothing like an unexpected collaboration to get the ears twitching, and both men seem to have got something worthwhile out of their work here. McCartney has written some very decent tunes, but he also enjoys a stately backing and consistent tone, things even the marvellous 'Flaming Pie' album lacked. Godrich can take the credit for this, as well as for placing the focus on Paul’s increasingly vulnerable vocals, but having spent most of this decade with an inward looking Radiohead, he must have enjoyed dealing with a natural tunesmith again.
But there is a broader point here. 'Chaos and Creation' is a thoroughly lovely listen, mostly because it isn’t trying to be anything more. Paul McCartney is something like the Roger Federer of pop music, in that because of their niceness and unbelievable successes, it is easy sometimes to forget that both are unbelievably talented, unbelievably inventive and by far the best in their chosen fields, probably for all time. But, whereas Federer’s fellow tennis stars are aspiring to be as good as Federer by playing their own natural games(and Nadal is getting increasingly close), far too many bands and songwriters are trying far, far too hard to impress, and have no hope of emulating McCartney‘s artistic achievement. Take, for instance, the Wolf Parade or Fiery Furnaces albums of recent years, on which there are some exceptional songs and evidence of real talent, but both drown in a sea of pretensions that the music really doesn’t need. During most of his career, McCartney always seemed to be trying something new, but he succeeded most when he played to his strengths. It just happened he had more than most.
On one of my frequent clearing up sessions (for this, read sitting cross legged on the floor flicking through old newspapers), I chanced upon an article that said that the coffee phenomenon was coming to an end and that a hipper section of society was re-embracing afternoon tea. Some of us never stopped being partial to PG Tips, and who indeed can turn down a cucumber sandwich ? But, let us assume for a moment that there was a grain of truth to the piece. There is an affectedness about the modern coffee shop, with its desperate attempts to seem like a continental cafe and part of the American Jazz Age at the same time, which gets alarmingly cloying after a while. By contrast, afternoon tea may occasionally be precious, but it is at least natural. Modern indie music could learn from this, and stop trying to pack so much in. McCartney (not unlike his spiritual heirs Ron Sexsmith and Ed Harcourt) may not always be glamorous, but is rarely unsatisfying.
And, indeed, Sir Paul does ask on 'Chaos and Creation', “would you like to sit with me for a cup of English Tea? Very twee, very me.” Not too much milk for me thanks, Macca.