Strawberry Fields Forever - Nothing is real

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

It's a long way between chaos and creation...

(note: I actually wrote this close to a month ago, but for some reason I've found myself pretty busy and distracted, so I had not gotten around to posting it until now)

Even though it has only been out in the states since Tuesday for quite a while now, I've been listening to Paul McCartney's newest for about a week now for quite a while now. (yes, I purchased the deluxe edition on Tuesday, you guessed it, quite a while ago)

The most important conclusion I can reach at this point is that I need to quit “reviewing” items when I have not left enough time for me to get to know them.

In a (shallow) way, I'm starting to see listening to new music like falling in love (or not falling in love).

Sometimes I will immediately “fall in love” with some music. It was this way with the Beatles when I was three years old and my uncle played me “Love Me Do” (yes, I remember this vividly.. I even found that very cassette he played for me that day about a decade ago) I was hooked from the first note, and I have never (well, except for that weird 25 month period) looked back.

Most albums or music usually is in the category of “love at first sight” or not. It only took me a single listen to know I loved Paul McCartney's prior studio LPs. (“Flaming Pie” and “Driving Rain”) Of course, often what may grab one's attention on the first few listens can soon lose its appeal. (thankfully, I generally don't remember examples for obvious reasons)

Of course, there are exceptions. There are times when the music strikes me as nothing special (or worse) the first several times I hear it, and only after a while, do I really begin to appreciate it. Nearly anything (good) Bob Dylan has released fits in this category, ditto with Leonard Cohen.

Even Beck, who normally releases music that is wonderful even on the first listen, released an album in 2002, “Sea Change”, which did not really impress me on its first listen. However, the more I made myself listen to it, the more I appreciated the gorgeous melancholy of it, and the more I respected the courage for a man who so long hid any real sentiment or emotions behind massive doses of humor, irony and sarcasm release a completely emotionally naked and entirely downbeat album. I now consider it Beck's best album (and probably the best new album released so-far this decade).

“Pet Sounds” did not impress me all that much the first time I listened to it. It's not that I disliked the album, but it seemed overrated the first time I heard it. It took a while for me to enter the world that Brian Wilson created for that album, to get in the groove of his arrangements that seem to have been entirely out of time for 1966, or really any year. The lyrics seemed trite on the first listen, but when I started to appreciate the earnestness, and the emotional direction of the album, I began to even love the lyrics. (Consider that the album begins with “Wouldn't It Be Nice” and ends with “Caroline, No”... that's one amazing journey!)

The reason I post this is that sometimes when I “review” items, I do so before I have fully decided if I am in love with the music or not. The first time I heard the Stones' album, “A Bigger Bang”, it sounded a lot like a rehash of “Bridges to Babylon” or any of their other post-”Dirty Work” efforts. It sounded like they were largely going through the motions. Many more listens started to reveal how unforced most of the album is.

With “A Bigger Bang”, they aren't trying hard to sound like the Stones; they are simply being the Stones. Still, not every song works (especially the ballads “Streets of Love” & “Biggest Mistake”), but everything else generally does. They also seem to have reconnected with the edge and attitude (albeit edge and attitude tempered with their age) of the group that famously sang in 1968, “I can see you're just 15 years old. I don't need no ID. I can see you're so far from home, but it's no hanging matter, it's no capital crime.” Ok, nothing on “A Bigger Bang” has that level of sleaze, but it doesn't have to. “A Bigger Bang” doesn't eclipse their work from their prime, but it is worthy music from one of the best Rock and Roll bands of all time.

“Chaos And Creation In The Backyard” thankfully wasn't something I tried to proclaim a verdict on earlier. It really didn't strike me as anything spectacular the first several times I heard it. Indeed, it seemed quirky, and somewhat slight. There's very little that grabs you on the first listen on the album (save for “A Fine Line”), but this is the epitome of an album that requires a lot of listens to appreciate.

This is a weird album, and seems to be Paul following his muse without much regard for what will sell well. The press for the album calls it the successor to “McCartney” 1 & II (his earlier solo albums that also happened to be recorded largely with Paul playing every instrument, much like the new one). However, this album frankly doesn't seem like the other two. It sounds like a normal album with a normal band, even if this is largely just Paul multi tracking himself. The songs themselves are mostly low-key, indeed there are really only two up-tempo tracks: “A Fine Line”, and “Promise To You Girl.”

Much like “Pet Sounds” (not to imply this is as good as “Pet Sounds”), it takes a bunch of listens to get into the style and groove of the album. The tracks may be low-key and seem simple, but there are some interesting things going on. With the exception of the track “This Never Happened Before”, which reminds me a lot of an attempt to sound like Burt Baccharach (in a bad way) and “English Tea”, which for some odd reason sounds very much like Paul trying to imitate the Rutles imitating him; every track has at least something going for it - something that shows Paul McCartney giving some kind of effort, or doing something unusual.

There may be fewer highlights on “Chaos” than on “Driving Rain” or “Flaming Pie”, but the highlights are just as good as on either of those albums (especially the George Harrison tribute-esque “Friends to Go”, and the wonderful “Follow Me”). Even with fewer highlights though, there are far fewer tracks that are clearly filler. Indeed, after listening to the album for a week, I can only really find two tracks that I generally will skip. (the ones I mentioned prior) Even “Flaming Pie” had 3-4 songs that were pretty clearly filler, and I still consider that album to be the best album he released since the Beatles.

So the question I wanted answered before the album was released was if Paul's streak continues. It turns out that yes, his streak continues; but it continues in odd and unpredictable ways. Maybe that's for the best. For Paul McCartney to be able to surprise and even somewhat challenge me; for Paul to create a good album that isn't obviously good on the first listen is simply amazing. Further note: I'm still listening to this album an awful lot now about a month since I first heard it. The album has staying power, and I think I'm in love. (Grade: A-)

Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, as long as you can put out music like this, PLEASE keep at it.

(and as a further further note, I am not paid by the Stones nor Paul McCartney, this shilling is entirely gratis from me.. not that I wouldn't mind being paid by either or both)