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.