McCartney scored a late-career triumph with 'Chaos and Creation'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The latter-day albums of acknowledged legends aren’t just mixed bags, they’re also incredibly difficult to judge in the moment, both as a fan and a critic. There are plenty of reasons for this. For the most part, fans want something new and exciting that also somehow feels comfortable and familiar, and those are aspects that don’t necessarily gel very well.
What the artist is looking for is also hard to judge — is this an album that’s looking to push the envelope, or is this a routine project, the culmination of a few years’ worth of songwriting with a recording contract to honor?
It’s this kind of suspect thinking that bogs down so many bands in their later years. The Rolling Stones shift from trying to sound current to attempts at recapturing Exile on Main Street, with varying results. Neil Young’s moods change with the wind, and that results in records that range in public opinion from “head-scratching disaster” to “glorious triumphs,” though it’s not as if he’s ever cared that much about that. Bob Dylan steadfastly follows his muse, and though that’s been greeted with near-universal acclaim lately, in the early 1990s he was cast as a has-been.
One artist who has managed to stake his own path has done so specifically because of his lofty background in the most revered group of all time. Paul McCartney, despite taking the occasional barb from critics and his former Beatles bandmates, has been the consummate musician since his famous band broke through in 1962. He announced the end of the Beatles with his first solo album, McCartney, in 1970, and from that moment on, he never took too long a break, releasing records and touring regularly ever since.
And while he’s remained prolific since breaking out on his own, the quality of those albums have tended to go up and down a bit. The brilliance of one record always seemed tempered by a mediocre one shortly after, for a bit, anyway. Like many of his peers, he’s had his share of struggles, and with it, his share of questions when it comes to any new material. But unlike the majority of them, he’s crafted some of his best post-Beatles material fairly recently, and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, released in 2005, rises above even the inflated expectations that always accompany his albums.
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, like his debut McCartney, was one of his near-absolute solo albums, with nearly every instrument played by the man himself. Guidance and assistance came from Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich, and together, they capped a great run in a daunting career.
McCartney, up to this point, had seen the consistency of his material tick up as time marched on. 1996’s Flaming Pie and 2001’s Driving Rain, the latter recorded after Linda McCartney’s death, both sold well and have stood the test of time. Run Devil Run was released in between, saw McCartney returning to his early rock and roll roots, and served as a fun listen. Throw in classical projects, remix work, the Wings anthology project Wingspan, the 2001 Concert For New York City and a massive worldwide tour following Driving Rain, and McCartney was as busy as a working musician could be. Certainly, he was in rare air when stacked up against his contemporaries.
He’d always kept himself busy, but that string of creative success and inspiration, fueled itself perpetually for a period of time there, and it only seemed to grow stronger. It was that rhythm that helped the writing and recording of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, the consistent work that didn’t bleed into the dreaded territory of “constant,” avoiding burnout in favor of staying sharp. The songs on this record are incredibly sharp as a result, which is saying something for a musician so in tune to the craft of melody and songwriting.
The lead-off track and first single, for example, was one of those pure moments of McCartney craft that seemed stuck out of time. “Fine Line,” a jaunty piece of pop, could have easily lived at home on any of the best Wings albums — Band on the Run, Red Rose Speedway, etc. But it’s not because of a self-conscious dip back into a previously successful sound; McCartney never experimented with sound the way the Stones did. Instead, he’s always been about honing the song and turning moments of inspiration into musical gems. “Fine Line,” then, fits in with the best of his 1970s catalog simply on the grounds of quality. It’s a great tune, and the best of Paul McCartney’s work has been about getting the most out of great tunes.
It’s not alone on this album. “English Tea” is another light McCartney moment in the spirit of “Good Day Sunshine” or “Teddy Boy” that lilts and is so British as to be celebratory, yet feels like it could have been written at any point in his career. “This Never Happened Before” has a rich orchestration that serves as a bed for a classic love tale. “Friends to Go” was dedicated to the late George Harrison. They, and most of the record, serve as a testament to McCartney’s skill, equal parts art and craft. Add the fact that his voice in 2005 was not far removed from its 1970 variation, and it’s a work that stands up to a towering catalog while looming large enough on its own.
The standout, however, is “Jenny Wren,” a song propelled by acoustic guitar finger-picking that recalls “Blackbird” in its double-footed rhythm. It’s a subdued, slightly vague story of a girl who, left, or was forced to leave. There are enough empty spaces that myriad characters can take the place of Jenny in the listener’s mind, and just specific enough to conjure up the appropriate image. It’s a fantastic little trick, one he’s been turning for five decades at this point. That it hadn’t lost any of its effectiveness this long in his career is a testament to hard work and genius.
The best aspect of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is simply this: pluck out the best four or five songs (your choice), and stack them against any sort of “best of” collection of McCartney, and they will sound not only in place, but worthy of inclusion. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard garnered solid reviews in the moment, which isn’t much of a surprise.
What is a bit surprising is that, in 2012, this still stands as a remarkable album, regardless of release date, with songs that sound as timeless as they are memorable. And with those songs, McCartney put all questions about intent or quality aside. All that was left was a great record deserving of his name.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org