New might be the ultimate misnomer, so often does Paul McCartney reference his iconic musical past. Yet his long-awaited return to popcraft is not without its fresh intrigues.
New, for instance, starts with the stomping pop-rock anthem “Save Us,” an interesting twist on the love songs he wrote for the late Linda McCartney, which rarely betrayed any conflict at all — beyond the sorry-I-screwed-up-dear variety. After her passing, and in particular through the ugly split with Heather Mills, however, Paul has brushed his narratives with deeper colors, and “Save Us” (which features, at its center, a howling cry for something to hold onto as the winds of change whip us around) continues this intriguing late-career trend.
Riffy and propulsive, the song eventually collapses into a heap — and not for the first time does the mind turn to McCartney’s time with the Beatles. After decades of musical attempts to set himself apart, and concerts that only referenced his former band in passing, McCartney has more recently finally (mercifully, in some cases) given up on chasing the trends of the day and returned to the sounds (and the songs) that helped build the foundation of his legend.
In keeping, the advance title track (which unfolds almost like a canny mashup of “Got To Get You In My Life” along with “Penny Lane”) isn’t the only a sun-streaked affirmation of everything that once — and still does — make Paul McCartney great. There’s also “Queenie Eye.” One of this set’s strongest efforts, it boasts a ruminative orchestral opening, the fizzy word play, nervy grooves and a processed vocal that point like a streaking arrow back to his late 1960s successes with George Martin and the rest of the Beatles. When the song comes to a momentary pause, it’s as if the dream-state reverie is complete. Then, and this is a sign of just how confident this McCartney album is, he does what every Beatles trope says he should do: Start all over again, with a swirling chorus of vocals, a banging piano and a second sudden stop.
Maybe the thing that’s newest about New — due via Hear Music on October 14, 2013 in the UK, and October 15, 2013 in the U.S. — is how comfortable McCartney seems in his own skin again. There are next-gen flourishes, but nothing too outside the basic framework of McCartney’s well-established approach. New updates his sound, but not to the point of being a modern-day curio.
The trick, of course, would be in approaching this subject matter not just as a musical theme, but as a compositional subject. “Early Days,” as its title suggests, finds McCartney surveying long-ago times in a frayed upper register, but largely alone alongside a brittle guitar riff. In keeping it simple this time, McCartney recalls the straight-forward joys of similarly ruminative solo tracks like “Here Today” and “The Song We Were Singing” — but with an even sharper narrative eye. He walks a very fine line here, risking much, and gets to the other side with acrobatic skill.
Is it a perfect record? Not quite. “Everybody Out There,” though presented with a much leaner attitude, is interchangeable with any of the other largely forgettable self-empowerment/eco-friendly bromides that dotted, say, 1993′s Off the Ground. Still, when McCartney comes crashing forward with a perfectly attenuated rocker like “I Can Bet” — winkingly offering: “what I’m going to do next, I’ll leave entirely to your imagination” — it’s clear that he’s put out a better album than many might have expected at this late date.
And he’s done it by never sounding more like himself.