Before the Beatles, before he put on that first Little Richard record and saw a whole new world open up before him, Paul McCartney listened to this kind of music. Looking back, an album of standards seemed inevitable for the scion of old-time jazz performers — unlike, say, similar too-fey-by-half projects by the likes of Rod Stewart.
There was 1967’s “When I’m 64” and 1968’s “Honey Pie,” 1975’s “You Gave Me the Answer” and 2005’s “English Tea.” Each, in its own way, was a transmutation of the songs his father used to play on an upright piano in the front room of McCartney’s childhood home. You could almost hear Paul trying to replicate the sound of his grandfather’s trusty old E-flat tuba, too.
With all of that in mind, it’s astonishing, really, that he took this long to get around to the forthcoming Kisses on the Bottom, an old-time record with billowing real-time emotion featuring tracks associated with last-century legends like Harold Arlen (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”), Frank Loesser (“More I Cannot Wish You”) and Fats Waller (whose hit with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” provides the cheeky album title).
In more ways than one, I’m glad that McCartney waited. It’s difficult to believe that, before now, he could have found a group so sympathetic as Diana Krall’s, or a producer in Tommy LiPuma with a such a quietly understated touch when it comes to the occasional string accompaniment — to say nothing of McCartney’s own delicately unreserved commitment to the material. In another era, you just know this would have been a gauzy mess, and Paul himself would have spent too much time letting you know he was in on the joke to fully inhabit the moment.
[ONE TRACK MIND: Laurence Juber discusses key songs from his tenure with Paul McCartney and Wings, along with favorite sides from his solo career and Al Stewart projects.]
Instead, and from the first, this is not just a love letter to a lost era of songmaking, but one of the most evocative, deeply ardent records that McCartney has ever issued. Working in a higher vocal range that remains largely untouched by age, or his rugged third-act touring schedule, the ex-Beatle stirs up a spectacular range of emotions: The hushed, crepuscular melancholy of Peter van Steeden’s “Home (When Shadows Fall)” is matched only by the stirring resolve found on Haywood Henry’s “Get Yourself Another Fool” from this now thrice-married soon-to-be-70-year-old. McCartney’s trembling rapture throughout Irving Berlin’s “Always” finds a balancing moment in his impish hat-tipping joy during Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Thcu-Ate The Positive.”
Will this set resonate for those looking to relive the anthematic glories of “Hey Jude,” or the sequential pop complexity of “Band on the Run” — or, heck, even the ear-worm bromides of “Ebony and Ivory”? No, and no, and, well, I hope not.
It’s time to move past that anyway. McCartney has, over the last 15 years, put out better music than many have given him credit for. In fact, I’d argue that a sequence of albums highlighted by 1997’s Flaming Pie, 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (maybe his greatest post-Beatles work, with the exception of Band on the Run), 2007’s Memory Almost Full and 2008’s Fireman collaboration Electric Arguments could rightly be called the most consistent and creative of any in his solo career.
In keeping, McCartney has every right to the odd vanity project. That this one makes so much sense, and connects on such a deeply personal level, isn’t so much a surprise as it is another welcome success in a period that’s been so unexpectedly filled with them.
‘Kisses On The Bottom,’ McCartney’s first solo project since 2007, is set for release on February 7 from Hear Music/Concord Records. The album also features notable guest turns on two new original compositions: “My Valentine” with Eric Clapton, and “Only Our Hearts” with Stevie Wonder.
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