Let me preface this by explaining that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s too late for Sir Paul McCartney to do anything wrong in the musical world.
Yes, he formed a horrifically campy 70s band after the Beatles split up. Yes, he currently labors under the deluded assumption that he can paint and write classical music. And yes, he sold what was the single greatest catalogue of songs in rock ‘n’ roll history to an androgynous, squeaky, sequin-gloved child molester.
But he also wrote “Penny Lane” in 1966, so basically everyone should shut up now.
But his career since then has been spotty. He shone on McCartney and Ram (his first solo LPs), then made a series of profoundly stupid musical and commercial decisions that lasted into the early 90s. His return to simple, genuine songcraft in 1997 was a huge relief after this pompous series of unrealized art rock projects.
On McCartney’s new album, Driving Rain, he delivers pretty much what we’d expect from any aging rocker (with the exception of Bob Dylan): a few precious gems afloat in a sea of enjoyable, but insubstantial filler.
As always, the best songs arise from McCartney’s incomparable ear for hummable tunes. “Your Way” and “From a Lover to a Friend” exhibit the effortless melodic sensibility that we generally associate with his Beatles-era folk ballads. In fact, the last few chords of “Your Way” echo (perhaps deliberately) the closing strains of “Mother Nature’s Son.”
Though he’s retained his talent for sweet, unassuming folk music, he left his ability to write lyrics back in the summer of 1968. “I Do,” the fifth track on Driving Rain, possesses the same beckoning naivete of his earlier White Album composition “I Will,” but within 45 seconds the airy charm turns to flat hokeyness.
McCartney is not Otis Redding, so when he earnestly sings “This is all I want/ This is all I need,” he doesn’t overwhelm us with longing, but instead with pity. The highly eroticized persona of a young McCartney gave dorky ballads like “Michelle” more sensual overtones, but Paul is no longer a teenager. He’s a 59-year-old widower, and that makes lyrical immaturity a bit pathetic.
In other words, most of Driving Rain’s love songs fall short — and love songs are McCartney’s stock in trade. Luckily for us, Paul can still deliver scorching vocals with a solid backbeat. He is recommitted to rocking hard (unlike another 60s rock icon of the same first name). He takes the caustic bluesy wail of the Yardbirds to a bitter extreme with “Back in the Sunshine Again,” the album’s standout track. And on bumpier cuts like “Tiny Bubble” and “Spinning on an Axis,” McCartney twists his vocals nicely into the grooves.
The album contains uniformly stellar performances from both McCartney and his backing band. They keep the overdubs to a minimum and record most vocals live, giving the overall sound a gritty intimacy from the microphone overlap. But, in the end, Driving Rain is a tentative step above mediocrity, especially for a musician like McCartney. It will certainly satisfy fans who just want an honest to goodness rock ‘n’ roll album, but I’d advise those looking for another “Penny Lane” to dig up their turntable and dust off their copy of Magical Mystery Tour.