In the annals of pop music, 2005 may well end up as the year of the comeback. On the coattails of once-dethroned pop queen Mariah Carey’s return to the top of the charts, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant has demurely slipped in a solo effort, and the Rolling Stones last week returned with a decided bang. And though erstwhile Beatle and one-time Earth-shaker Paul McCartney never really went anywhere (if only he had) this week he returns with the thoughtful and nuanced “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” With help from producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), the album shines where other bloated comebacks drown in luster.
McCartney has that rare ability to mix up his musical palette without jumping too far off the radar (the combo of “Helter Skelter” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” from “The White Album” is a glorious case in point). On “How Kind of You,” he layers a distant, rambling piano riff against pensive acoustic guitars, on top of the best rock bassline this side of a Radiohead number. Godrich’s touch strings an offbeat, left-of-center sensibility through songs which otherwise would have been a bit too poppy to work well. We all know McCartney can write some of the catchiest melodies known to man, but it often isn’t enough to keep things interesting.
The album is well-balanced between McCartney’s impeccable — if overdone — pop instinct and Godrich’s refreshing — if oddball — envelope-pushing. “Jenny Wren,” a haunting little guitar-driven ditty that shouldn’t be written off as a “Blackbird” clone, especially because of the hauntingly harsh inflection of McCartney’s voice. Though he maintains the fullness of his late-60s voice throughout the majority of the album, it’s clear he’s being pushed to sound somewhat off on “Wren.” After 45 years of making music, it’s lovely to hear McCartney expand his boundaries so subtly, utilizing some of the new guard’s new tricks.
But he hasn’t completely jumped the shark. We’re mercifully spared from the electronic beast we all know is lurking inside him: The opening space-age blips and bleeps that begin the album are a perplexing red herring on an album mostly comprised of McCartney’s own piano, acoustic guitar, bass and drums.
“Riding to Vanity Fair” has a quietly hypnotic beat, but thankfully it never veers into full-on trance territory. Instead of flowing unabated, the chiming bells and soothing wave effects are interrupted with a drum solo here, a mournful cello there. While it feels like there are opposing forces within the track (perhaps Godrich’s win over McCartney), it works magnificently. The song is at once charming and distant, calming and yet tense.
McCartney’s lyrics tend to veer between the confusingly opaque and cheesily obvious. On “Vanity Fair,” he obliquely sings: “The trouble with friendship/ For someone to feel it/ It has to be real/ Or it wouldn’t be right.” Thankfully, the song’s musical mood overshadows the lyrics, which is something of a muddle in an otherwise fresh and sharp composition. Sadly, there are other tracks whose backbones aren’t strong enough to withhold the deadweight of bad lyricism. On the flaccid “Promise To You Girl,” he describes a scene, “Looking through the backyard of my life/ Time to sweep the fallen leaves away.” On the similar “Follow Me,” he extols the woman of his dreams, who seems to have numerous characteristics in common with Jesus Christ. Religious imagery abounds, but heavenly emotion does not.
The album’s closing track, “Anyway,” is a fitting example of “Chaos and Creation” as a whole. Opening with a rich and lush piano line, it turns a bit off-kilter with some out-of-the-blue banshee wails, only to soon return to the catchy, pop-perfect core that set it off. Best of all, McCartney rips out of the gate with some beautiful verse — “If you love me, won’t you call me/ I’ve been waiting, waiting too long … Always singing, singing this song.” And yet later he can’t avoid some duds: “If love is strong enough, it may never end.” Despite that momentary triteness, which leaves the song uneven and a bit uninspired, it is strong enough to demand repeated listens.
A few bum lyrics aside, “Chaos” is an impressive work, an album whose unexpected twists and turns never detract from its overall cohesion. Obvious flaws aside, it is a polished jewel of contempo-pop — as a whole, it only gets better with time. Though McCartney’s solo career might not push many more buttons, he’ll be in good shape if he continues to find collaborators who can bring such sparkle to his music.