- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Paul McCartney

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard

Capitol Records

If Paul McCartney could clone himself, he would have one of the tightest little combos on the planet. Guitar, bass, piano, drums — it all, seemingly, comes effortlessly to the Beatles’ most dexterous musician. (Sorry, John; Paul had it all over you in that department.)

Refusing to wait for self-replicating technology, Mr. McCartney has twice taken his talents to their logical extension with one-man-band efforts such as his rustic solo debut, “McCartney” (1970), and the synth-oriented “McCartney II” (1980).

He has done so again, save for here-and-there string accompaniment and the occasional sideline contribution, on “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” an astonishingly sturdy and sinewy effort that tops anything Mr. McCartney has done since revitalizing himself in the wake of the mid-‘90s Beatles “Anthology” project.

That’s saying something. His last disc,”Driving Rain,” is aging better than one might have hoped four years ago, and “Run, Devil, Run,” recorded two years before that, was the most giddily youthful rock album Mr. McCartney had put out since who knows when.

“Chaos” also marks the first time in ages that Mr. McCartney has worked with someone interesting behind the boards. (You can’t do much better than George Martin, who reunited with Macca for 1982’s “Tug of War”; conversely, you can’t do much worse than pop maestro Jeff Lynne, who inevitably makes any music he touches — such as Mr. McCartney’s “Flaming Pie” — sound like, well, Jeff Lynne.) In this case, Mr. McCartney made an intriguing choice in Nigel Godrich, the young Brit who twiddled knobs for ‘90s alt-rock gods such as Radiohead, Beck and Pavement.

At this point in his career, Mr. McCartney, 63, has perfected a way — call it the campaign of quiet reclamation — to answer the critics who have kept him in a stranglehold since the Beatles’ demise. He’s at once (along with Bob Dylan) rock’s finest living singer-songwriter and its most exasperating sentimentalist.

“Chaos,” despite its cool austerity, is not without moments of Pauline preciousness. There’s the string-bulky ballad “This Never Happened Before,” which Mr. McCartney loaned to his masseuse for her first dance at her recent wedding. (Must have been some massage: The song was then still a work in progress.) On the sunny parlor tune “English Tea,” Mr. McCartney luxuriates in “miles and miles of English garden” and — perhaps slyly self-appraisingly — sings, “Very twee/very me.”

Yet even these songs have undercurrents of melancholy, thanks in part to Mr. Godrich’s light sonic touch. He and Mr. McCartney preserve plenty of breathing room on each track, allowing the album’s graceful string arrangements and offbeat instrumentation to seep into the open spaces, where they leave an eerie afterglow that jells nicely with Mr. McCartney’s mature lyrical images of careworn romance.

Listen to the tear-jerking duduk (an Armenian woodwind) on the folksy, fingerpicked “Jenny Wren” or the way Mr. McCartney plays a harmonium and toy glockenspiel to create harmonic tension against the swells of a string ensemble on the lightly sinister “Riding to Vanity Fair,” one of the quiet knockouts on “Chaos.”

This isn’t an album that tries to tear the roof off the sucka; it’s an album with an old soul and a stately aura.

Macca still rocks when he rustles himself, as on the galvanizing kickoff track “Fine Line” and “Promise to You Girl,” on which he briefly threatens to cover Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” but instead settles into a bouncy Motown groove.

Remarkably for a writer with such a world-famously extensive songbook, Mr. McCartney manages to echo past glories without recycling them. “A Certain Softness” has the calypso feel of the “Band on the Run”-era favorite “Bluebird,” but played even more tenderly. “At the Mercy” may conjure up the gray cloud cover of “Fool on the Hill.” Mr. McCartney draws on an outside source (Curtis Mayfield’s soul classic “People Get Ready”) for the gorgeous closer “Anyway,” in which he sings, “In my soul is constant yearning/Always singing, singing this song.”

That “constant yearning” hasn’t always translated into albums as strong and cohesive as “Chaos,” but it has this time — which means we might still be needing Macca when he’s 64, and perhaps beyond.

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