October 15, 2013
"New" (Hear Music) tries to present a picture of restless urgency, with Paul McCartney working with four youngish producers who have contemporary hit-making credentials. It presents a varied collection of music, designed to show that the 71-year-old legend hasn't gone soft (an impression left by his previous release, the mushy 2012 standards-heavy collection, "Kisses on the Bottom").
For the most part it works, though McCartney never quite digs as deep as he did on the sturdy "Memory Almost Full" (2007), his last studio album of completely original material (or his adventurous 2008 side project as the Fireman, "Electric Arguments"). That might be a function of the working method, which saw McCartney collaborating in short bursts with producers such as Paul Epworth (who has worked with Adele and Florence + the Machine), Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars) and Giles Martin (the son of Beatles producer George Martin).
Epworth blends snappy percussion accents and cascading harmony vocals to launch the album on the frisky but slight "Save Us." Ronson creates a dark atmosphere for "Alligator" around simple keyboard and guitar riffs. Johns conjures otherworldly drone on the dreamy love song "Hosanna." And Martin is called upon to give some Coldplay-play anthem dynamism to "Everybody Out There."
The latter sounds more like a collection of arena stage banter, but otherwise barely qualifies as a song – "Hey! Anybody out there? Talk to me, I can't hear ya!" All the production fine-tuning in the world can't camouflage the can't-be-bothered quality of some of McCartney's lyrics: the simplistic one-syllable rhyme scheme amid the rhythmic rumble of "Looking at Her" and "Queenie Eye," the bouncy triviality of "I Can Bet."
When fully engaged, McCartney is still capable of brilliance: The way he hones in on discarded cigarette boxes on the bus as an image from his youth in "On My Way to Work"; the mystical Eastern fog of "Appreciate" topped by an avant-garde guitar solo that echoes his work in Fireman; and the wistful, acoustic "Early Days," his voice as unguarded and openly emotional as it has ever been on record as he looks back on his teenage partnership with a fellow upstart named John Lennon. An entire album in this vein might be too much to ask or expect at this late stage, but it's an indication that a guy who seems to have done it all, twice, still has a few surprises left.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
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