Music Review: Paul McCartney - Egypt Station

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Much of the most interesting work of Paul McCartney's career has been issued over the course of the last 20 years or so. Albums such as Flaming Pie (1997), Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005), Memory Almost Full (2007), and New (2013) have contained some of the more varied, introspective, and downright creative songs he's ever released. His collaborations with Martin "Youth" Glover as The Fireman, Rushes (2008) and especially Electric Arguments (2008), have also yielded some of his most fascinating music.

Hyperbole? Apologism? Just go listen to those records. And if you already have, maybe listen more closely. If you're still unconvinced, perhaps you simply don't care for Paul McCartney. We all know he was great in The Beatles. We all know he was one of the '70s dominant hit-makers. But if you tuned out at some point after that, the rest of his output is well worth exploration.

Egypt Station, releasing September 7 on Capital Records, is McCartney's 25th post-Beatles album. Yes, that includes releases billed to Wings (or Paul McCartney & Wings), and the all- or mostly-all cover albums. They're all part of the journey that is McCartney's artistry (there's even more, of course, if we count The Fireman collaborations). And the great news is that Egypt Station finds the 76-year-old artist in fine form. Teaming primarily with producer Greg Kurstin, McCartney has crafted a 16-track sonic epic that includes some of his most expressive, personal material. Two of the tracks, "Opening Station" and "Station II," are under-one-minute instrumentals. They're a combination of ambient sounds and a snippet of wordless choral vocals that serve as subtle, atmospheric interludes to bookend the album.

The other 14 tracks find Macca working in his patented multi-instrumentalist solo form (usually augmented by a few helpers, including producer Kurstin) as well as accompanied by his touring band. Much of the album has the intimate, low-key feel of Chaos and Creation, especially the intriguing "Confidante," on which McCartney wistfully sings of a former companion with whom he is no longer close. This is the only time, in fact, on the 57-minute album where McCartney is totally unaccompanied.

Some of the more personal moments are a bit startling, at least in the context of McCartney's often closely-guarded personal feelings. On "Happy With You" he recalls copious amounts of time getting wasted and even lying to his doctor. The self-doubts and depression expressed in lead single "I Don't Know" seem alleviated by the satisfying companionship (of wife Nancy, one would presume) in the deeply-felt "Happy With You." On "Do It Now" we're remind to carpe diem—"while your vision is clear"—perhaps an overly familiar message (McCartney memorably based an entire song around the phrase "There never could be a better moment than this one" nearly 30 years ago), but one that bears constant reminder. 

Anyone doubting the libido of a man in the autumn of his life should check "Come On To Me" and "Fuh You," two of the friskier tracks in McCartney's catalog. The former is a stomping rocker featuring all members of the touring band—among numerous other guests, including the Muscle Shoals Horns. The latter, the only track not produced by Kurstin (Ryan Tedder stepped in, who also co-writes), is a fairly bald-faced stab at contemporary pop music. It's production is actually credited to Tedder and Zach Skelton, both of whom are credited with Programming. McCartney himself grounds the track with bass and various keys, but the results still feel out of place with its somewhat annoyingly "now" sound.

Guess we can't blame Paul for taking a bold stab at the charts, perhaps energized by his recent collaborations with the likes of Kanye West and Rihanna. But he sounds more at home everywhere else on the album, making "Fuh You" a minor detour and nothing more (it is, admittedly, quite catchy). "Who Cares" kicks steadily with the help of his full touring band, a bit of a self-empowerment rocker that asks "Who cares what the idiots say? Who cares what the idiots do?" It's great to hear Macca growling with real intensity in a song that recalls the time he demanded "What the hell gives you the right to tell me what to do with my life?" 

Speaking of vocals, it's important to note that his singing is very much on par with what we've heard on more recent work. He's 76 and it has been five full years since his last album. Yes, there have been unmistakable changes in his voice that have come with the unforgiving nature of aging. However, he can still deliver a delicate ballad like "Hand in Hand" (backed by just his own piano, a touch of acoustic guitar, and Pedro Eustache on Indian flute plus a pair of cellists). He can still roar with considerable authority, as on "Caesar Rock," a thumper featuring drumming by both Paul and Abe Laboriel Jr. that would've been right at home on Electric Arguments.

Another adventurous track is the uptempo, Latin jazz-ish "Back in Brazil," one of the album's biggest production numbers (string quartet recorded at Abbey Road, full orchestra at Henson Studios, a huge choir, Pedro Eustache on flute and duduk, Laboriel on drums, and Paul on everything else—from guitars to various keys to congas). Another massive production effort is evident in the seven-minute, multi-part epic "Despite Repeated Warnings." The lyrics are clearly inspired by the current leader of the free world (perhaps the lines "How do we stop him? Grab the keys and lock him up!" are a bit too obvious), but McCartney keeps the words general enough that the song would stand up in any political era. The shifting musical tone should help maintain interest even for those who'd rather not hear politically-motivated lyrics. 

Among all the aural invention is perhaps the most instantly-classic McCartney track of the batch: "Dominoes." Mid-tempo, acoustic-driven pop featuring Paul on nearly everything (only Kurstin and Rob Millett guest; the former on marimba, the latter on cimbalom). It's hook-filled in way that simply screams McCartney, with a lyric that cleverly looks both forward and backward simultaneously (I hesitate to quote too much directly, as my review materials did not include a lyric sheet). For my money, "Dominoes" is an easy candidate for any future 'best of' compilation. Another nearly all-Paul track is "People Want Peace," the title of which quite frankly made me cringe slightly. Really? Paul, you've done "Pipes of Peace," "Peace in the Neighborhood," did we need this new one?

Yes, it turns out. The arrangement itself is as clever as anything on the record, with Paul on everything from piano/bass/drums/guitars to harpsichord and ankle bells (!)—utility man Kurstin is there on various additional keys, Vanessa Freebaim-Smith on cello, plus numerous background chanters/clappers—but there's a neat twist in the lyrics. It isn't so much concerned with global peace, but rather the quest for people to discover inner peace—"a simple release from their suffering."

Classic Paul, and one of many tunes throughout Egypt Station that will lodge itself in your brain and remain on endless repeat for some time. This one is another keeper among McCartney's string of superbly-crafted, late-period albums. And did I mention it ends, right after the multi-section "Despite Repeated Warnings" (with only the brief "Station II" interlude in between), with a three-part medley of mini-songs? The first, "Hunt You Down," is a new wave-ish rocker (think of an earthier "Save Us," kind of). In the middle, "Naked" is a 6/8 swayer that cools the rock vibe but offers interesting lyrical content. Finally the oddly-titled "C-Link" is an instrumental, slow-burn blues.

Target will have have an exclusive Egypt Station that adds two more cuts. And there's already word from Capital of a super-deluxe edition in the future (details of which have yet to be made public). It's always difficult to assess where a brand-new McCartney album will figure into an overall ranking, but my personal feeling is that this one will be a good way up the in the top half.

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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