It was only a matter of time before Paul McCartney would release an album of standards. After all, this is the man who wrote such throwback tunes as “Your Mother Should Know,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Honey Pie,” “You Gave Me the Answer,” and the lesser-known “A Room with a View.” In various interviews, McCartney has also cited his love of Tin Pan Alley, Cole Porter, and Fred Astaire, who performed so many classic and iconic tracks. Now McCartney tosses his hat into the ring with Kisses on the Bottom, an often charming collection of standards featuring exquisite arrangements.
Listeners may fear that McCartney is “pulling a Rod Stewart,” releasing an overly commercial, heavy-handed production in a blatant bid to revive a career. Instead, the ex-Beatle wisely recruited some of the best in the business to helm the project: Diana Krall, who plays piano and handles much of the song arrangements; Bucky Pizzarelli and son John, two elegant jazz guitarists; legendary orchestra conductor Johnny Mandel; and award-winning bassist Christian McBride. Friends Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder stop by to lend their talents on a few tracks; Clapton in particular shows a surprising talent for playing jazz-tinged solos.
Clearly McCartney worked hard to improve his phrasing; just compare his vocals on “It’s Only A Paper Moon” with his tentative, often awkward phrasing on “The Very Thought of You,” a duet with Tony Bennett on the crooner’s first Duets album. Frequently he sings in an unusually high range on Kisses on the Bottom, which does not always suit his sometimes fragile voice. Yet he understands that singing pop standards differs greatly from rock, and his efforts pay off on “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter,” which McCartney croons with a jaunty air. The lovely “Home (When Shadows Fall)” takes on new meaning through McCartney’s performance. When he almost whispers the lyrics “Evening ever brings to me/ Dreams of days that used to be/ Memories of those I love the best,” one can imagine the 69-year-old musician reflecting on his storied life.
Krall and producer Tommy LiPuma arrange each track, cushioning McCartney’s voice in lush strings, tasty piano fills, and layers of subtle instrumentation. Krall is a master of illusion—in other words, her piano playing can be so laid back that one does not realize the technique and precision that permeate each solo. The Pizzarellis soar on “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” their intricate guitar work lending the song an intimate, warm sound. John Pizzarelli’s acoustic guitar on “More I Cannot Wish You” represents a master class in jazz guitar. Clapton shows surprising restraint on “Get Yourself Another Fool” and the McCartney original “My Valentine,” his light-handed guitar solos suggesting that he should release his own standards collection.
McCartney deserves kudos for not choosing obvious songs that have been covered umpteen times, although he does tackle well-known tracks such as “The Glory of Love,” “Always,” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” His fragile vocals on “The Glory of Love” add an emotional punch to lines such as “You’ve got to give a little, take a little/ And let your poor heart break a little.” This is a man who has lived these words, and he sings them like he means every syllable. However, McCartney sometimes lacks the swagger and power necessary on songs like “Get Yourself Another Fool,” which needs an experienced pop singer like Bennett to convincingly deliver lines like “You used me for a tool/ Go get yourself another fool.” Bennett’s famous version of the kiss-off track “I Wanna Be Around” exemplifies how to dramatically interpret lyrics with one’s voice.
In addition to the standards, McCartney penned two original songs for the album: “My Valentine” and “Only Our Hearts,” which features Wonder on harmonica. Both tracks fit in with the romantic, sentimental tone of Kisses on the Bottom, although neither are as memorable as the other tunes. “Only Our Hearts” more successfully imitates the retro tone of the other tracks, wisely allowing McCartney to sing in a lower, obviously more comfortable register. Lyrics such as “If only my love was here/ I’d be taking the time to feel it/ Washing over my body and soul” echo the nostalgic pitch of the rest of the album. Wonder’s always-incredible harmonica playing further enhances the wistful quality of the lyrics.
Does McCartney’s singing compare to legendary crooners Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or Nat King Cole? No, but perhaps that’s not the point of Kisses on the Bottom. Instead, it serves as McCartney’s love letter to the great songwriters who influenced his own work, and a fond look back at the songs his own father used to perform at parties. Viewed through that lens, Kisses on the Bottom is a pleasant listen, and shows how McCartney enjoys experimenting with different genres.