What does Paul McCartney want?
I remember thinking that in 2016 as I watched him perform for more than three hours in front of about 20,000 people at the Target Center in Minneapolis, during the first of two sold-out shows in town. While his voice sounded a little weathered, and the brownish tint of his hair was slightly suspect, it was hard not be charmed, if not awed, by the concert. The career-spanning set covered every aspect of his storied career, from “Can’t Buy Me Love” to “Hey Jude” to “Band On The Run” to “Temporary Secretary” to “FourFiveSeconds.” Because he was in Prince’s hometown, he also made sure to play “Purple Rain.” At every moment, McCartney made it clear how much he still cared — and it was way, way more than was required. With the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen, I don’t know that any classic rocker comes close to Macca’s level of caring, even though he has no real reason to care at all.
Consider that McCartney, who turned 76 in June, has been an international star for nearly 55 years, if we use The Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9, 1964 as his “rock star” birthdate. In 1965, he headlined a stadium concert for the first time, which means that he’s been a stadium-rocker longer than most current stadiums have been in existence. He’s an ancient, venerated institution that for many of us has always been part of the landscape. His peers aren’t just Bob Dylan and Paul Simon — they’re also Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.
For McCartney, what is the significance of earning another standing ovation from another packed sports venue for which he will be paid another million dollars? What is left for him to possibly achieve? How is he not sick of doing this yet?
I pondered these questions again while listening to Egypt Station, his forthcoming album, the 17th of his solo career. It’s a lot better than I expected, which is strange, because I’ve listened to every Paul McCartney record from the 21st century, and they’re all pretty good. And Egypt Station is pretty good in approximately the same way — as he does in concert, McCartney covers all of the established bases in his oeuvre. Egypt Station has melancholic pop songs (“I Don’t Know”), embarrassing pop songs (“Fuh You”), romantic pop songs (“Happy With You”), funky pop songs (“Back in Brazil”), vaguely political pop songs (“People Want Peace”), prog-pop songs (“Despite Repeated Warnings”), and a bunch of short pop songs arranged in an Abbey Road-like suite (“Hunt You Down/Naked/C-link”). It’s a “new tunes designed to evoke the greatest hits”-style late-period legacy-artist record that McCartney specializes in.
As he did on 2013’s New, McCartney worked with trendy, in-demand producers on Egypt Station. Greg Kurstin (Adele, Beck) oversaw most of the record, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder produced and co-wrote the randy, ridiculous single “Fuh You,” a harmlessly goofy throwback to the babytalk Esperanto of early Wings songs like “Bip Bop” and “Mumbo.” But what really separates Egypt Station from the golden-years work of McCartney’s boomer brethren is the pretense of “hey, maybe this could be a hit album!” Bob Dylan and Neil Young are not trying to make music that sounds like contemporary, MOR indie pop. They make unabashed old-guy records steeped in folk, blues, and dusty rock ‘n’ roll. But Macca still tries to compete in the pop marketplace, which is insane, even when it kind of works (with the help of Kanye West and Rihanna).
So, I ask again: What does Paul McCartney want? Because he can’t possibly win at this.
With an artist of his stature, good will always be the enemy of great. Actually, there really isn’t any artist of McCartney’s stature in terms of making music so pervasive that it’s used as a universal standard for how great and/or popular great, popular music can be. Even teenagers who couldn’t pick Paul McCartney out of a police lineup know what it means to declare that Migos is better than the Beatles. It’s like comparing your career to the sun or the ocean.
If McCartney had stopped making music in 1970, his artistic legacy and financial future would be secure. His reputation is bulletproof, but it also really can’t be amended. Which means that Egypt Station, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t need to exist, in spite of the occasional piece of breaking news, like the part in the “Blackbird”-like “Happy With You” where Macca claims that he no longer gets high. (I’m very tempted to file that one in the “fake news” file.)
When “Fuh You” was released a few weeks ago, people in my social media timeline instantly made fun of it, probably because it’s an extremely easy song to make fun of. The lyrics are dumb, the melody is mind-numbingly simple, and the production makes the song sound like a toothpaste commercial. Beyond the actual song, however, was McCartney’s obvious grab for a hit that a man born in 1942 has no logical shot at having in 2018.
When you’re a 76-year-old rock star, you’re supposed to hire Rick Rubin, strip your music down to a stark acoustic guitar strum, and write about your own inevitable death. That’s the blueprint for senior-citizen rock-star gravitas. McCartney sort of does that on “I Don’t Know,” in which he ruminates about how there are “crows at my window, dogs at my door/I don’t think I can take anymore/What am I doing wrong?” But nobody is going to mistake Egypt Station for McCartney’s Johnny Cash record, not when he’s going on about wanting to, um, “fuh” somebody. He just doesn’t have it in him to brood.
There are two ways of looking at McCartney’s continued desire to be a pop star. The first is uncharitable: He’s a mercenary with an insatiable need for marketplace supremacy. That’s the “John Lennon ranting to Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone in 1970″ viewpoint. And it’s not entirely unfounded. McCartney has always made sure to hitch his wagon to whoever happened to be in vogue at the moment: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Kanye, RiRi. He even hooked up with Super Furry Animals when they were cool for about a minute and a half in the early ’00s. Pop stars are like sharks, and nobody has covered more inches of pop’s ocean floor than Paul McCartney
The second perspective is kinder and, I think, truer: The man is a born entertainer who doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Pop music has always served two simultaneous purposes for him: it’s his means of expression, and it’s how he makes people happy. In The Beatles, McCartney was the best at writing singles, but he was also the most interested in avant-garde music. And he was uniquely adept at bringing those worlds together. In his solo career, some of his silliest songs are also the weirdest. “Wonderful Christmastime” sounds like the worst song in the history of mankind for the first 100 times you hear it, and then like work of experimental genius after the 101st time. Will I eventually get there with “Fuh You?” While I can’t imagine getting to my 100th listen — I feel tired after eight spins — I don’t rule it out.
Maybe I should flip my own question: What do we want from Paul McCartney? If it’s not necessarily new songs, perhaps it’s the idea of new songs. I might not remember anything from Egypt Station when I make my McCartney playlist, but I’m glad it’s there, giving him reason to keep up the same restless pace he’s maintained for almost 75 percent of his life. If Paul McCartney ever stopped trying, he would cease being Paul McCartney.
Egypt Station is out on Friday via Capitol Records. Buy it here.