Don’t read too much into the title of Paul McCartney’s 24th solo album (widely referred to as his 16th, though it’s patently absurd to exclude his Wings discography). New is, in fact, his first set of all-new originals—released under his own name—since 2007’s Memory Almost Full. It’s also the title of the album’s most insanely catchy track. Other than that, New is another colorful, varied collection of polished pop tunes that holds together exceptionally well, despite the presence of four producers.
In other words, he’s not out to reinvent the wheel. That’s a good thing. McCartney’s artistic vision has always been strong enough that his strengths shine through regardless of who’s behind the board. Still, four producers is the most cooks he’s had in the kitchen since Flowers in the Dirt (1989). Even though a modern pop sheen glosses some of New’s more adventurous tracks, McCartney’s traditional sound cuts through the entire album.
The Paul Epworth-produced tracks are the most sonically striking. Recalling McCartney’s Fireman collaboration with Youth on Electric Arguments (2008), these songs “weren’t written.” According to McCartney, he and Epworth agreed to “just make it up” in the studio. The results include the super-charged opener, “Save Us,” powered by a heavily distorted guitar lick, the booming “Queenie Eye,” and the moody, slow-building “Road.” That last one is the final track listed on the standard edition of New, but be sure to seek out the excellent fourth Epworth track, the Japanese-only bonus track “Struggle.”
McCartney’s other most successful collaborator here is Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George. Martin helmed the lion’s share, producing no less than six cuts on the standard album, including the sparse, emotionally vulnerable hidden track “Scared.” He brings a touch of electronica to the moody “Appreciate” that might polarize some fans. McCartney got raked over the coals for attempting this sort of thing in the ‘80s with tracks like “Pretty Little Head” from the Hugh Padgham-produced Press to Play. The difference is, “Appreciate” (and the Epworth tracks, for that matter) reflects McCartney’s sound much more organically.
Ethan Johns and Mark Ronson produced two tracks each. Ronson has been getting most attention; partly because he’s the most recognizable name among the four, partly because he produced the aforementioned advance single, “New.” But honestly I don’t hear anything in that tune or “Alligator” that David Kahne wasn’t doing on Driving Rain and Memory Almost Full. Johns’ worked on the album’s two most traditional numbers, “Early Days” and “Hosanna.” The former is New’s emotional highpoint, a deceptively warm-sounding look back on McCartney’s pre-fame period as a budding songwriter. Without sacrificing acoustic-based sunniness, he gets justifiably defensive (“Now everybody seems to have their own opinion/Who did this and who did that”) about those who presume to know more about his life than he does.
All too often, fans and critics alike tend to compare every new McCartney album with the best of The Beatles. That’s unfair. Between the other three Beatles and George Martin, it was a very unique collaborative period with a one-of-a-kind combination of voices and visions. Youthful inspiration and invention coursed through them all. Over his 43 year (and counting) solo career, Paul McCartney has become less prolific, but significantly more particular. Beginning with the ‘90s, his output has slowed to one new album every several years. New ends the longest drought between all-new material that fans have had to endure. The consistent quality contained within—the sense that he’s no longer content to pad out albums with filler tracks—makes the wait well worth it.