By Mark Guarino
Paul McCartney is unfairly tagged a sentimental sap for writing cheery fare like “Ebony and Ivory” and “Ballroom Dancing.” His latest album, his 20th since the Beatles and including Wings, owes more to the darker side of his song catalog. Here is the iconic songwriter who claims ownership to “Silly Love Songs” but who also gave the world “Helter Skelter” to reckon with. The downcast tunes on “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard” (Capitol), in stores today, may not sound as unhinged as the title promises, but their ultimate upheaval comes in their emotions, which are complicated and frayed.
This album can’t help but feel personal, and not simply because of its lyrics. Except for some strings, McCartney, 63, played almost all the instruments himself. In other one-man operations the result is usually spartan. Not here. McCartney gets busy, playing up to ten instruments on one song alone and overdubbing multiple harmony parts. The sound he creates is lavish but never overcooked. Everything has a sort of handmade warmth.
His principal collaborator is Nigel Godrich, who is mostly known for his long-time producing partnership with Radiohead and memorable work with Beck, Travis and others. Godrich reportedly assumed the role of a young taskmaster to the elder rock statesman, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a series of demos McCartney auditioned for him. The songs Godrich pushed McCartney to pursue further are not the conventional pop fare his fans might expect. As lush as their arrangements can be, these well-mannered songs dodge obvious hooks. “You never need to worry about me/I’ll be fine on my own,” he sings. The “Nowhere Man” John Lennon introduced four decades ago was a buttoned-down character living on the outside of things, suffering in silence. Here, McCartney answers that song with a complete album.
That’s not to say the album drags in tempo. “Fine Line” and the Freddie Mercury-like harmonies of “Promise to You Girl” reestablish McCartney’s rock roots. But they may not fully satisfy his diehard fans wishing he’d crank out nothing but silly love songs. These mournful songs are not as immediate. Instead, they follow the pattern of Beck’s “Sea Change” (Geffen), which Godrich also produced, by drawing the listener in through minor keys, a pensive wall of sound and lyrics that do not hide their vulnerability.
The combination makes this album one meant for spending time with to let its rewards sink in. “At the Mercy” may be one of the most haunting songs he’s written yet, its title refrain repeated to accompany his most disturbing thoughts: “we can watch the universe explode.” The crashing piano chords of “Too Much Rain” demand release. “Laugh when your eyes are burning,” he sings. On “Jenny Wren,” the acoustic guitars reference the Beatles’ “Blackbird” except McCartney adds in the sound of a duduk, an Armenian wind instrument that mimics crying. On many songs, McCartney’s lyrics flash with insecurity. The rigid chamber music setting of “English Tea” satirizes his proper British roots (“how twee/very me”) while “How Kind of You” thanks a friend for their kindness before confessing, “I thought that all was lost.”
At the age he is at, most of his peers are too tired or distracted by celebrity to make music that resonates as deeply as when they were young. On “Chaos,” McCartney indeed gets back, but towards inspiration, not nostalgia