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CD Review: Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard

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I got into an accidental discussion with some about the Grammys last week. I watched the first half of the program and offered some thoughts on the winners, losers, and the performances and production numbers. I took a small swipe at Sir Paul McCartney. Apparently I touched a nerve. As a result of that conversation I wound up buying Chaos and Creation in the Backyard to determine whether or not my McCartney jokes were justified.

Chaos is a cohesive listen. I may be giving Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich too much credit but the presence of only one annoying, cheeky song on a McCartney solo record is nothing short of amazing. The word here is lean. There are no futile attempts at grand statement (“Freedom”). He resists the temptation to show us all how hard he is with silly bravado or posturing. Even the silly love songs are mostly absent.

The album opens with “Fine Line” which also happens to be the song from his Grammy performance that cost me 10 dollars. I called the song pedestrian based on that performance. I am now willing to back off that statement… a little.

“Fine Line” is a good example of how Chaos and Creation works. Not much grabs you on first listen. The lyrics are neither embarrassing nor revelatory. The classic rock roots of many of these songs make them unremarkable (or pedestrian). The secrets of these songs are revealed only with repeated listening. Strings do unexpected things and McCartney uses an arsenal of instruments not traditionally used in popular music such as flugelhorn, duduk, autoharp, vibes, harmonium, and glockenspiel. The choice of these unusual instruments bolsters McCartney’s gift for melody and gives the songs vitality. He not only chose them but also plays most of them himself.

“Riding to Vanity Fair” might be the coolest thing he has done in 30 years. “Vanity Fair” is the story of a broken friendship. Does “Riding to Vanity Fair” really mean “Writing to Vanity Fair?” Did the relationship in this song end because Sir Paul felt betrayed by a confidant who sold him out to the press? The lyrics are consistent with that interpretation. None of us will know what it is like to live a life where tabloids will pay to know the most mundane and intimate details of our life. “Riding to Vanity Fair” could have easily degenerated into musings from an an ivory tower, a song of self-pity for the wealthy. McCartney avoids that focusing instead on the underlying emotions. The lyrics express feelings of betrayal and sadness. We may never read about our lives on the cover of The National Enquirer but have all experienced the betrayal of having our secrets revealed by someone we trusted. Is “Riding to Vanity Fair” about being betrayed in the press? It does not matter. The emotions of the song will still resonate.

The best part of “Vanity Fair” is the music. The strings arrangement adds just the right touch of melancholy murmuring and droning to create the air of disappointment suggested in the lyrics. Acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano provide the song’s foundation. Glockenspiel accents and occasional electric guitar flourishes are all the adornment “Vanity Fair” needs.

Sir Paul’s voice is finally beginning to show its age. The high notes do not come quite as easily. His voice sounds just the slightest bit thinner. “Vanity Fair” actually benefits from this. The straining in his voice adds a sense of plaintiveness that fits comfortably.

“How Kind of You” is another victory. McCartney has written innumerable songs with this kind of saccharine sentiment. In the past, he would have married the sugary words to an equally sugary melody. “How Kind of You” is saved by the use of non-traditional instruments and strings to create a musical backdrop that is almost unsettling. The juxtaposition of the sweet words and the eeriness of the music creates tension and that tension makes the song work.

Not every song on Chaos and Creation is a complex composition like “Riding to Vanity Fair” and “How Kind of You.” “Jenny Wren” is a spare, simple acoustic song anchored by a barely audible floor tom keeping time. McCartney manages a surprise even in a sparse song like this. The duduk is not the popular choice of classic rock legends (apparently cow bell is). The duduk, an Armenian instrument with a mournful tone reminiscent of a clarinet or oboe, has a slightly unusual sound and is a great choice.

Noel Gallagher, if nothing else a pretty fair Beatles historian, sums up the lone dud on Chaos and Creation: “‘English Tea’ is atrocious and he does it to you every time.” Gallagher is right, of course. The song is bad enough in its own rite but the sequencing of the album, putting “English Tea” in the middle of the album, destroys the flow of the record. McCartney cannot help but embarrassing himself at least once on a record. Chaos and Creation would have been an even twelve songs without “English Tea” and losing those two terrible minutes would have made the remaining 44 minutes that much better.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard set me back ten dollars but it cost me more than that. Now I have to find a fill-in for all of my jokes about veteran artists embarrassing themselves in their old age. This album removes Sir Paul from that list. Like Dylan before him, McCartney is enjoying a renaissance in his work. I will have to kick around Eric Clapton instead. Chaos and Creation is a sturdy set of songs with a couple of gems. It is free from the filler that has weakened his past albums (“English Tea” does not even rise to the level of filler). His Grammy nominations were more than just an overdue homage. They were deserved.

I will have to limit my McCartney jokes to “Freedom,” which is still one of the worst songs of the past fifty years, and the abomination of him performing “Yesterday” with Jay-Z and Linkin Park.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i borrowed this cd from a co-worked and really enjoyed it. big surprise.

    didn’t hate “English Tea”, though….can’t quite remember which Beatles tune it reminded me of.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom

    I love it, one of my favorite albums of last year. “English Tea” sounds to me more like McCartney poking fun at himself – “very twee, very me.” It doesn’t disrupt the flow for me, but I could live without it. I have a sad hope that maybe this is Paul’s final album – I don’t see how it’s possible that he can do anything but fumble after this one. Better to go out on top . . . Of course, this will never happen.

  • http://Dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    This was good Sir DJ : ) Always good to get a fresh perspective on music. Thanks!

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    I don’t know that Grammys are particularly important to McCartney at this point, but he actually made a thoughtful and worthwhile record, with some air of understated experimentation. And the Vanity Fair song is just that good.

    However, I’ma have to go ahead and disagree with you a bit. Specifically, The “English Tea” song is really outstanding. It’s my second favorite thing on the album. It’s catchy and really gets at a bit of his English personality. Try that in a mix back to back with “When I’m 64″ sometime.

  • http://artmonkeyrecords.com Monkey Michel

    great review on a great record. whereas some people have to give it a second listen, i think i got it on the first. i’m almost afraid to listen to it too much because it left such a good taste in my mouth the first time. like a good meal. i’m full.

    i just wish he would tour with Chaos instead of reheating that beatles tribute show he drags around the world. i think it would be far more interesting to see him play smaller venues and do a show similar to the one he did in Abbey Road studios, playing songs from Chaos with Nigel playing the loops. great stuff. get rid of the Samoan drummer and the guy Rusty (he’s too tall), and definitely get rid of the blonde guy (he looks older than Paul). bring Denny back.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    “English Tea” seems like a musical cousin to “For No One”…lyrically, it’s at the other ‘happy’ end of things.

  • Curt H.

    Paul McCartney is better on his worst day than 99% of the artist that get played{or should i say pay for play}on the radio these days! McCartney will continue to be better until the day he goes to heaven. thanks for your time

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/cmpwrite/ Connie Phillips

    Great review, DJ Radiohead. I just picked up this CD recently myself, but shamefully have been much too busy to give it a good listen. Thanks to this review, I will be getting it out tonight and will let you know if I agree with your thoughts.

  • jons

    i’m a big mccartney fan, and actuall had some arguments about McCartney, and validating his creed in the music world around the time of the grammys . This album is very good, very mellow althought i could go for more songs where he screams the lyrics out

  • new reader

    I really appreciated your take on the latest McCartney album. The album is very good–and continues to be overlooked by the masses who seem to be brainwashed by what the establishment feeds them today. (How can this continue to be so?) The lyrics are ace, and he’s playing almost every instrument on this album. This is artistic music by an artistic musician. We don’t have many of those around today, of any age…

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    We may never read about our lives on the cover of The National Enquirer

    Well there was that incident involving 12 pounds of linguini, 15 dead hookers and a set of matching Hoover vacuums back in ’83. But my lawyer says its best not to talk about that.

  • Bill McNamara WillMc Productions

    I read somewhere that this album is one of McCartneys best due to the fact that someone was there to tell him no. As well he seems to be mad when he’s doing it.
    I agree with that. English Tea is the most Beatle like song that he has done in a long time. (It reminds me of Martha my Dear)Even It’s a Fine Line kind of sounds like Lady Madonna.
    Paul does best when he has some kind of stress in the studio. Somebody to say “That sucks” Or how good the song is. Or how to improve it.
    A producer that is not in awe of Paul McCartney. That is the reason this album is so good.

  • Mitch Cumstein

    Include me as another that rather enjoys English Tea – it reminds me of Penny Lane much like Jenny Wren reminds me of Blackbird. I read Vanity Fair almost didn’t make the album (Nigel thought it sucked), but they messed with the tempo and it turned into a moody gem.

  • M

    Paul sounds vulnerable here for the first time in a long time. You can still hear him mourning Linda in some of these songs…’the long dark night’ he talks about in “How Kind of You,” etc. And you’re right—“How Kind of You” is a killer track, and the minor chords make this song a gem. Take “English Tea” for what it seems to be…Paul making fun of himself. He’s done that in the past, I believe—in “Silly Love Songs” for example—and time after time the critics fail don’t see the irony in it. (And yeah, “Silly Love Songs” still kicks a##…it’s a great tune with a killer bass line and awesome vocals/harmonies.) You failed to mention the brilliance of “Too Much Rain” and “At the Mercy”…these tracks are brilliant.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    The CD keeps growing on me after getting it a couple weeks ago, and after getting used to it being more a contemplative delight more than a raucous one (maybe “Fine Line” threw me off). I also agree about “Freedom”: I appreciate the sentiment and intention more than the execution and repetition.

  • M

    I appreciated “Freedom” at the time but it’s certainly not one of his most endearing (or enduring) works. But the song, in his concert I attended right after 9/11, went down big with the crowd. So if it was a ‘pick-me-up’ after 9/11, it served its purpose.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Thanks, everyone for checking out the review and checking in with some really good comments.

    Let me start with “English Tea.” Folks, I have to come clean. I thought the song was so obviously bad on its face that it never even occured to me there would be a defender, let alone several. After hearing some of your ‘defenses’ of it I can say I understand what you mean. I still think it is rubbish and the album would have been stronger without it but I appreciate your points of view on it.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Picking up on something else said in the comments… I think Godrich’s contribution to this album is vital. I think he did help Paul cut some crap from his bag of tricks. I think he challenged him to keep coming up with better stuff. There are not a lot of producers who would have felt comfortable doing that. Godrich did and the album is so much the better for it. It was also his idea for Sir Paul to play so many of the instruments himself. McCartney had planned on having a band, Godrich advised against it. Again, a good idea.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Al, I think the Grammys might be more important to McCartney than they should be and more important than you might think.

    McCartney has a real inferiority complex brought about by the canonization of John Lennon. He has gotten slagged off in the press plenty while Saint John is forgiven for some spotty solo work. I think he wanted the validation. I really do. I don’t think he needs it. I don’t think most people think he needs it. I think he did want it.

    Thanks for reading/commenting.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Brewster, you never disappoint. One of these days, once the statute of limitations has expired, you and I will have to swap manly stories of our time on the run.

  • Mac Fan

    English Tea a bad song ??? English Tea is a great song…one of the songs that makes one think of Sir Paul in the Beatle days. It makes me think of ” Your Mother Should Know”.
    I think Chaos and Creation is the best Macca album since ” Flowers in The Dirt”
    Paul is a class act, I know of no one that could make an album like this,writing the songs/singing them and playing all of the instruments. It should have been called McCartney III.

  • hart

    A thoughtful & well [re]adjusted review.

    English tea, the ‘delightful’ noel cowardesque piece of chamber pop in the middle of the album is sir pauls middle finger to those who tell him to be cooler please.

    mccartneys thumbs aloft winking rocker persona [like an embarrasing uncle rocking at a family party] won’t resonate the same way with the audience looking back in say 200 years time – his music will.

    Have you re-listened to his last solo effort – Coming up [1980] – I’d like to see what you think about that album – it has one cringing contribution ‘bogey music’ that i refuse to listen to but everything else is pure synth 1980 electronica.

    Lennon liked it but commented “he sounds depressed!”

    hart.

  • GordonS.

    “English tea, the ‘delightful’ noel cowardesque piece of chamber pop in the middle of the album is sir pauls middle finger to those who tell him to be cooler please.”

    Well put!

  • Gary Myers

    Great Album that needs a few listens, Fine Line throws you off a bit and sounds like a leftover from Run Devil Run, I agree about English Tea it for me ruins the flow of the album Vanity Fair & To much rain are superb.

  • Gary Myers

    Another artist who has just released a similar album is Neil Diamond’s 12 songs produced by Rick Rubin, like Mccartney Diamond has produced alot of sugary stuff for years, this album is stripped down and like Chaos is critically accliamed. It would be nice to see Rick Rubin work with Mccartney, it shows how much influence a producer can have to an album, like Trevor Horn’s on Flowers in the Dirt

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Thanks again to everyone stopping by. You got the review on the “Hot Topics” out front and since I am a total traffic whore this pleases me.

    Putting an uncool song on your record to goad the people who want you to be cool just isn’t cool to me. I just don’t hear any charm in that song.

  • rocco

    Thank you for your balanced and thoughtful review.

    I think that Chaos will be an album that people refer back to when trying to find out what Paul was really about. I think it will have “legs”…

    I think English tea is a typical macca statement of “If I like it, I will put it on…”, but I also think its a bit of self-parody.

    For those that like Chaos, there are some outstanding b-sides to the Fine Line and Jenny Wren singles, like “Comfort of Love” and “Growing Up, Falling Down” (which is similiar to Vanity fair). I would really encourage you to find these songs…as they are just as good, if not better than Chaos itself.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    More generally, I think it says a lot about Paul–about his musical sensibilies and ego-less and temporary perceived awareness to jump-start his creativity–when he sought out Elvis Costello as a writing partner for songs that showed up on Flowers and Dirt, and on Costello’s works (“Veronica,” “So Like Candy,” etc.) I’m such a huge fan of both individually, so this was the best of both worlds. (Now if only Ray Davies and Pete Townshend would finally get together for their long-planned project.)

  • J. Galloway

    Let the record show that all of Paul Mccartney’s employees and hanger-on’s are flooding this post to plaster untrue artistic merit to a rather bland and poor endeaver that surely moves nothing of consequence.

  • Maart

    I’d go along with the view that the lesser known album tracks are the better songs on this album. It’s just a shame they weren’t released as singles. Now most people will probably never hear them. The actual singles released would have gone down well in the 1960s, but I think general radio/ pop listeners like a deeper song now in the 21st century.
    Fine Line could sound a lot less like the song a wise man would sing to his grand-son wile imparting a “werther’s original” if it had a blast of “Why don’t we do it on the road” when done live…

  • Maart

    Fine Line could sound a lot less like the song a wise man would sing to his grand-son wile imparting a “werther’s original” if it had a blast of “Why don’t we do it on the road” tagged on the end when done live…

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Hey JG: Let the record show that Paul McCartney lets us lackeys know: the proper spelling of “endeavor,” that the proper term is “hangers-on” (not “hanger-on’s”), and that “surely moves nothing of consequence,” surely means nothing of consequence.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Great read as always, DJR! I need someone to make me a best of late-era McCartney CD as I haven’t the time nor inclination to put it together myself but when the right song(s) hit me I really am in heaven.

  • LARRY

    I purchased pauls new album the day it was released and have enjoyed it ever since, its not the Beatles or wings its McCartney.I have enjoyed the last 25 years of his solo work.He still rocks,he still tours, and thank god sir paul still makes music.

  • hart

    Actually, i personally agree with you DJ, as the album gets better with repeat listening ‘English Tea’ tires… i think ‘growing up falling down’ [beautifuly dark] would have made an ideal middle section and English tea a novelty b-side.

    but hey, McCartney is as McCartney does right.

  • Petal Blossom

    “English Tea” is not that bad- there are some great songs in the album but also a fair share of “filler” which is why he did not win but no one will admit it. “This Never Happened Before” is so sugary, it should come with a coupon for dental work. In it, the most complex rhyme he seems to come up with is “be’ with “see.” It’s terrible. “How Kind of You” is an experiment gone wrong, “Fine Line” is so forgettable, it’s not worthy to be on it.

    “Too Much Rain,” “Friends to Go,” “Jenny Wren,” and “At the Mercy” are excellent songs, though- but he seems unwilling to keep that kind of quality up throughout the whole album, which is a shame. He doesn’t seem to realize that something like “This Never Happened Before” is bad, and that is his achille’s heel that will always bring him down.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    “This Never Happened Before” is not the strongest track on the album. It’s a little too saccharine for me but not nearly as insulting as “English Tea.”

  • Susan

    I felt the same way about English Tea when I first heard it–how embarrassing. I still think the words are embarrassing–but I’ve started liking the tune. I think the music on this album is really different and I like it! Some of the lyrics are terrible. I wish he’d put more thought into the lyrics. You get the feeling that he writes it once and then that’s it–no more working on the lyrics. The music, on the other hand, is creative. And the minor tone throughout most of the album is wonderful.

  • aldo

    this is the best mccartney album in years and considering he played all the instruments, the best artist of the year. I lkie English Tea.
    My favorites in order are:
    1. Too Much Rain 2. friends to Go 3. Vanity Fair 4. Jenny Wrenn. 5. Fine Line 6. promise to you 7. A certain softness. 8. Anyway 9. Follow Me 10. This never happened before(yes he needs to ryhme better)11. English Tea 12 At the mercy. oh yeah I don’t like How kind of you-but it’s growing on me

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    great review, DJ. i missed this when it came out, i meant to get it a few times and then, well, i never did. But this has reawakened that glimmer of an idea along the lines of “yeah, best i hear this here record by him out the rolling stones”. i’ll pick it up in some manner fairly soon.

    great stuff.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Thanks Duke. I have to say I was surprised how much I liked the record. I didn’t think I would. It’s very good and relatively cringe and filler free. It’s worth picking up and spinning a few times without question.

  • http://jpsgoddamnblog.blogspot.com JP

    I do enjoy this, although I think it’s a bit overrated – I do enjoy the understated playing that Nigel brought out of him. That said, I’m still somewhat partial to Flaming Pie of late.

  • Bob Rice

    “English Tea” is the best first listen song on the album. I was quite happy that it was included in the most recent tour’s song list. Where I would completely agree with this review is that the overall album grows on you. 6 months after buying it I’m just now starting to really appreciate it.

  • Mark

    Petal Blossom have you no soul?!
    ‘This Never Happened Before’ might have simple rhymes but listen to the music…it’s incredibly moving. Or do you not like ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt.Pepper either? Again, simple rhymes – but when your musical backdrop is so clear and poignant, are you really going to start cluttering it up with Dylan-esque lyrics that get in the way of the music?
    I think the words to the two above-mentioned songs are perfect, in that they are unambiguous and allow the listener to lose him/herself in the music.
    And I do feel sorry for Sir Paul in light of recent events, as ‘This Never Happened Before’ comes across to me as a genuinely heartfelt statement.

  • Jeff Gordon

    Josh, why to do you “have to kick around..” anybody? Why not just relax and enjoy the depth and intellect of these classic artists? These songs are ahead of their time and will outlive us both. For all you positive comments, I think you’re right on!