Singing in the rain: Paul McCartney renewed with melancholy ‘Rain’

Paul McCartney’s new album, “Driving Rain” (Capitol)

By Mark Guarino

Ever since fans knighted Paul McCartney the “Cute Beatle” in the carefree days of Beatlemania, he has carried the crown of endurable optimism his entire career.

But once rock music lost its innocence with Vietnam, McCartney’s sunny insistence felt more and more like a relic from a lost time. As he grew older, song titles from “Let It Be” to “Silly Love Songs” to “Back in the Sunshine Again” (a song from his newest album), sounded almost by rote as if the public wouldn’t expect anything more from their beloved Beatle who wore the quintessential face of public cheeriness.

Let’s not forget that McCartney was introduced to Americans the year after the nation suffered the assassination of its Camelot president and later, the president’s brother and also, the country’s major civil rights leader. Public grief welcomed moptop escapism and allowed it to flourish with an almost sanctimonious fever. And from that moment in history to last month’s benefit concert for the victims of Sept. 11, McCartney has embodied the belief that pop music is at its best when it can heal and offer hope. Even in the days when it was fashionable to hide behind the façade of greasy, long hair and recreational drugs, McCartney’s eternally cherubic face had no one fooled. His songs still promoted the dream that good things were around the corner. Or, as one new song insists, despite the hardships of the past, we’re all “gonna wake up and sing.”

At first listen to McCartney’s new album, “Driving Rain” (Capitol), there’s the impression that nothing’s changed. In stores Tuesday, the album offers standard pop uplift, even though by now it feels a little like servitude. There are many standard love ballads and one song even imagines the world as nothing more than a “tiny bubble/floating inside the truth.”

But unlike any other solo album of his, a distinctive melancholy hides in the margins. “Driving Rain” is his first collection of all original songs since the death of his wife and collaborator Linda McCartney and sorrow is its inescapable backdrop.

Which is refreshing for a 59-year-old veteran of a musical form that is largely created for and consumed by teenagers. Four years ago, Bob Dylan set the bar high for his peers. His comeback album, “Time Out of Mind” (Columbia), was a meditation on the dark years ahead and the regret left behind. Truthful and gut-wrenching, it is one of Dylan’s best albums and a lesson to his contemporaries who choose to ride out their remaining years banking on cartoonish nostalgia. What Dylan proved was rock musicians need not consider themselves dinosaurs once they end up the establishment. In fact, the maturing years can provide an entirely new source for vital music-making that requires, simply, a deep look inside and the courage to deal with what’s there. And it also means a makeover deeper than wrinkle cream: the time since Dylan’s album was showered with Grammys and accolades, he began performing live as if someone gave him a second lease on life.

McCartney’s renewal can be traced to “Run Devil Run” (Capitol), the hellraising collection of covers from two years back. Bent on recapturing the way the Beatles quickly churned out early albums, McCartney recorded it mostly live with few overdubs and within a week.

The same tact was applied for this follow-up of all originals. The recording itself took two weeks and McCartney reportedly had never even met his new bandmates before stepping into the studio and plugging in with them. It was meant to be a rush job in the best sense — the production extravagance that bejeweled the Beatles’ most fertile period and was carried forward with Wings, was abandoned in favor of minimalist restraint but pent-up passion. There are no booming melodies on “Driving Rain” or fattened-up choruses for embrace. Instead, the album is sparse and largely quiet. The songs — some unexpectedly laced with sitars (“Riding Into Jaipur”) or a pedal steel guitar (“Your Way”) — hold more back than they reveal.

Grappling with the past in order to move forward is the major theme that keeps surfacing. “From A Lover To A Friend,” the album’s best song, itself hesitates, gently pausing and starting over again and switching in and out of odd time signatures. “Let me love again,” McCartney sings, in a conversation with a lost lover, his bass playing bubbling tears. Despite a lengthy history of providing endless silly love songs, it is the most subdued song he’s written about the subject yet.

The album opens, already mourning. “I hear your music/and it’s driving me wild again,” McCartney sings on the chugging rocker “Lonely Road.” Could it be John Lennon? Even if, his survivor’s not getting sentimental: “don’t want to let you take me down/don’t want to get hurt second time around,” he sings.

McCartney’s reflections on the past few years (“you can’t imagine just what I’ve been going through,” he offers on “Tiny Bubble”) come to a head on “It Must Have Been Magic,” a song not just about Linda, but to her. Reportedly about the night he introduced himself to her at a bar, McCartney reminds her, “if I hadn’t stopped you/I’d always regret…what made us do it/under what holy spell.” The song’s dreamy mid-tempo shuffle beat collapses under an interruption of strings tagged to the end.

“Driving Rain” is far from perfect — a ten-minute album-ending blues jam is needless and others like “Heather” (dedicated to new girlfriend Heather Mills) or the murky ambiance of “She’s Given Up Talking” feel more like throwaways. But for McCartney who had to temper static star power lately with classical music left turns and the endless repackaging of his past, this album’s singing in the rainstorm spirit has genuine depth.

Scatting in a breezy falsetto in “Spinning On An Axis,” it sounds so familiar but, at the same time, entirely different. Coming from the darker company it keeps, the song gives a whole new meaning to smiling even if it hurts.

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