Despite being known as the "Fifth Beatle" way back when I was in high school, I didn't buy any of the Beatles year and a half old Anthology series until just a few weeks ago. It was my own little personal protest/statement to Paul who I felt was spending too much time living in the past, and living off his gasconaded status as a member of the greatest rock group of all time.
But I must admit having listened to the first two Anthology collections a lot recently, I was reminded of why I liked the Beatles in the first place. The group clearly demonstrated that the whole was greater than the parts; John's wit was complimented by Paul's charm. George's mysticism was balanced by Ringo's charisma. Not only did they make a lot of great music, they appeared to have a whole lot of fun in the process.
McCartney's answer to criticism that he has never come to terms with his Beatle past is to say that he isn't living off the nostalgia as much as trying to be motivated and inspired in the same manner as he was when he began writing and playing songs with his celebrated bandmates all those years ago. "I go back so far I'm in front of me." His career has always been about getting back to his roots to proceed forward. He now seems less defensive about feeling free to use some of the same devices he helped to make famous twenty five years ago.
His up and down solo work is often like the game of golf. Amongst the frustration and mediocrity lies a gem every now and again that suggests to you there is always a possibility for greater things. That one shot or that one moment keeps you coming back even if overall the end result isn't always so worthwhile.
His latest CD, Flaming Pie, like all his best work grows on you after repeated listenings. In terms of quality it falls somewhere between superlative efforts like Tug of War and Flowers in the Dirt and missed opportunities like Venus and Mars and Red Rose Speedway. Like the concept demonstrated by the Beatles, the overall sum of the parts on Flaming Pie is greater because of the individual moments. It's musical snippets like the piano fill on the cover track, or the backing acoustic guitar and oboe work in Somedays or his double tracked octave apart vocals on The World Tonight, or the nifty little coda on Beautiful Night that show Paul's often breathtaking and impressive versatility and talent.
Like every new McCartney work one of the songs has already worked its charm upon me and is now my all time favorite song: Young Boy (which was the first single released in the United States; The World Tonight, another fine tune was the first British single). Supposedly written to his nineteen year old son, James, Young Boy is like 90% of other fine McCartney songs, highly melodic with lyrics about the virtues of love that scan well but really don't reveal all that much about the writer. It's catchy, it's hooky, it's downright Beatlesque, and it is the type of song Paul does so well and seemingly so effortlessly. And it's a fine song to crank in your car and sing along with at the top of your lungs. Find love, a time for meditation. Find love, a source of inspiration...
I also enjoy the equally melodic Beautiful Night produced by George Martin with its wonderful orchestral backing. It's the CD's big ballad and unlike similar attempts on his last few CD's, this time McCartney successfully walks that fine line between schmaltz and true sentiment. The song is charming without being cloying. Other highlights include Used to Be Bad a rocking duet with Steve Miller, and the acoustic Calico Skies a simple silly love song.
McCartney's career has consisted of an intriguing paradox: he either fails when he tried too hard (Ram, Back to the Egg, and Press to Play) or when he doesn't seem to try hard enough (London Town and Wild Life). The underlying current in all his work is his overwhelming desire to please. Thus when he attempts to be meaningful these days, because his music is clearly motivated by the need to entertain rather than being inspired by anything in particular, he fails more often than not. The weakest moments on Flaming Pie are the moments when Paul tries too hard to write something of significance again. Lyrics like "Long live all of us crazy soldiers... May we never be called to handle all the weapons of war we despise..." sound forced and unconvincing. Still those moments are few and don't distract from the overall spirit of the CD. It's great to finally have yet another set of solid songs (his last CD was four years ago). And like any collection of new McCartney songs it is guaranteed to bring a smile to at least one little fella's face as he plays it over and over again this summer.