Egypt Station (EMI)
In a sense this album represents the work of a 76-year-old with zero fucks to give. It’s what we wants, how he wants it, at the lengths he wants, for as much as he feels necessary. I’m Paul McCartney, you’re not, deal with it.
Sixteen tracks, including two brief intro and (nearly) outro instrumentals of ambient tones, a closing track in multiple parts that runs to just over six minutes, songs in character, songs in anger, songs in jest, and at least one song about getting some older gentleman, ahem, action, with the I-can-barely-be-bothered-to-euphemise title Fuh You.
Another way to look at it is this is what you get when a man who was brilliant in his 20s and 30s and stumbled into mediocrity a bit too often in his 40s and 50s, shows the creative rejuvenation of his 60s continues at a fine pace.
There’s a looseness and freedom to this album that feels like the earliest McCartney solo albums such as RAM and the self-titled one. The records where he did pretty much everything himself, approached like a man readjusting to the light and sound of a normal world after an extended spell in front of kliegs and klaxons.
A song such as Dominoes is both loose but grounded in a solid melody, throwing back to pre-rock popular song but always keeping its shuffle on track. That old-fashioned edge is clearer still in Do It Now, which could have been sung to a young Paul in the cradle, but retains the late ‘60s touches (faux harpsichord, choral rising, string section) that make it feel like it could be a turn or two away from getting the full Spector treatment.
However, there’s also an expansiveness of style here that touches on some of his mid-to-late-70s work (grooves, rock and Caribbean, to add to the usual mix) and flirtations with 21st century rejigs (such as his often very interesting electronica), but done with lightness of touch rather than any old rocker’s neediness about putting the hip into hip replacement.
Caesar Rock punches between blues and some distortion of reggae that somehow begins to suggest some west coast hip hop, his voice husky and the drums huskier still. Back In Brazil on the other hand plays at the edges of Latin rhythms, throwing in flute for some retro-hipness and some odd sounds on the keys for up to date hipness.
And everywhere there are tunes and movements which please in a way so familiar and yet in a way few others have ever managed.
Some surprising choices too, such as beginning the album on downbeat tone after the soundscape of Opening Station. The first vocal track, I Don’t Know, is a mid-tempo sleeper, which turns on a late-in-life acceptance of not quite getting things right, and has McCartney’s less pristine modern voice keeping itself in check like its protagonist.
The sound is more like a Wings song than a solo album track: full and almost rich in its thick bottom end; clear piano and brief bursts of female backing vocals that cushion rather than lift.
Things flip as the next track arrives though with Come On To Me a horny bit of almost ramshackle rhythm and, in its first half, the feel (though not strictly speaking the sonic return) of something recorded on a four-track at home. Possibly after having the encounter with the youngish woman who has made him frisky.
By the time the brass kicks in in the second half the sound has filled out into a bar room skiffle but the sense of a man at ease remains, comfortably seeping into the more laidback, down-on-the-farm Happy With You.
That’s another character song, a man who “used to drink too much/Forgot to come home” but now doesn’t need to because, well, he’s “happy with you”. So much so that one of the most famous dope smokers in music declares “I liked to get stoned/I used to get wasted/But these days I don’t”. Say it ain’t so Paul, some of us still live vicariously through you!
After a couple of chilled-as moments in Fuh You and Confidante, whose energies are warm Sunday morning, and before a gently tender love song in Hand In Hand, which is more like later that same Sunday but lying side by side in bed, McCartney offers something unlikely. People Want Peace is mini-anthem of protest that has more than a hint of one or two such songs written by a fellow Scouser named John Winston, without the clumsiness that McCartney sometimes brought to the style.
One thing McCartney could always do, sometimes when sensible people might have said “no, that’s enough”, was pack a few wholly different songs into an extended gambol. Some people would sell their first born to get one good hook or melody to sustain a three minute song; McCartney would throw three or four into one song with the cavalier freedom of a man who discards a dozen tunes before breakfast.
On Egypt Station he does this twice. Of course he does.
Firstly, Despite Repeated Warnings (lyrically, an unexpectedly strong dig at a Trumpian world in an extended metaphor of a ship heading to a rocky end) begins as crushed hope, powers up into some classic rock and then turns into a quasi Bond theme of brassy swing and faith.
Then the closing song, Hunt You Down/Naked/Clink charges in as rousing glam rock, pulls in for a beer and a yarn at a pub just down the road, before dimming the lights for a slow burn, Dark Side-era Pink Floyd turn to take us home.
It works. But then he’s Paul McCartney, we’re not, and that’s the deal.