Paul McCartney: Egypt Station review – back to where he once belonged

Macca tries to keep up with the kids by recording with super-songwriter Ryan Tedder, but the strongest moments are when he embraces his own innate talent for melody – and his angst

During the promotional blitzkrieg for his 25th post-Beatles solo studio album, Paul McCartney told a revealing story about one of its tracks. Fuh You was made in collaboration with Ryan Tedder, a songwriter-for-hire best known for writing Leona Lewis’s Bleeding Love and Beyoncé’s Halo. A chart fixture throughout the 70s and 80s, McCartney last had a Top 10 single 31 years ago – unless you count his supporting role on Rihanna’s FourFiveSeconds, when his voice was sped up and drowned out by Kanye West. He sought out Tedder, he explained with admirable candour, in pursuit of “a hit”. During the sessions for the track, however, McCartney became concerned: “I’ve been involved with songs that have meaning, and this doesn’t amount to anything,” he protested. “Y’know, I wrote Eleanor Rigby.”

The track in question rather makes you wish he’d paid attention to his haughty inner voice. It is a less traumatic experience for the listener than Mick Jagger’s recent collaboration with Skepta, but there is still something depressing about a Paul McCartney song that sounds as if it was assembled on a latterday pop production line. Not least because it doesn’t sound like the kind of undeniable smash that latterday pop production lines occasionally come up with, but the stuff they palm off to pad out albums. The best thing about it might be its Beatle nerd-appeasing title, with its reference to the obscure Apple-released single King of Fuh by Brute Force.

It’s the latest in a series of ungainly lunges for contemporaneity on McCartney’s part. On his last album before this one, New (2013), for example, he hooked up with Mark Ronson to peddle a bit of thumpy post-Mumford faux-folk called Everybody Out There. You can understand where the drive for this kind of thing comes from: if you had spent your 20s at the absolute nexus of pop culture, everything shifting and changing in the wake of whatever you chose to do, you too might long to be at the centre once more. But it feels unnecessary. What we might call Paul McCartney’s classic style is a fundamental part of pop music’s DNA. Half a century after his creative zenith, its echoes are still everywhere and one suspects they always will be. He doesn’t need to strive for contemporaneity in order to sound contemporary.

It’s a point borne out by Egypt Station, which is at its best when it finds new ways for McCartney to be as McCartneyesque as possible. Opener I Don’t Know shows his extraordinary melodic facility is completely intact – the tune is impossibly sumptuous – and taps into a strain of darkness in his writing that is often disregarded, overshadowed as it was by John Lennon’s front-and-centre angst, and then buried beneath the chipper Fab Macca image. This is the distracted, haunted McCartney heard on Fixing a Hole or Waterfalls or, more recently, on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, by some distance his best 00s album.

The cover of Egypt Station.
The cover of Egypt Station. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Despite Repeated Warnings is an alternately racked and vaguely optimistic response to the rise of Donald Trump. That and Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link both show his penchant for episodic songwriting, complete with sudden shifts in tempo and mood, and have caused excitable voices to start evoking A Day in the Life and side two of Abbey Road. Despite Repeated Warnings does have a hint of the former – the bit where it dramatically accelerates is powered by a similar bass pulse, an old trick that still works to heart-quickening effect – but let’s calm down a little. These two songs are better compared with Wings’ still-excellent Band on the Run, or the 11-minute medley that concludes 1973’s Red Rose Speedway. Still, listening to them, you’re struck by how good McCartney is at this kind of thing, how well each element fits, how it never sounds fragmentary or patched together.

The state of McCartney’s voice in recent years has caused some consternation, but its audibly aged, slightly quavering quality works here, adding an affecting dying-of-the-light edge to Confidante’s acoustic saga of regret and friendship lost, and a sense of hard-won experience to Happy With You. A man who once literally wrote a love song to marijuana – Got to Get You Into My Life – here renounces the weed in favour of the beauty of nature and companionship.

Egypt Station is not without flaws. Quite aside from the misstep of Fuh You, it could use a trim – the world could probably have struggled on somehow without hearing the inconsequential Back in Brazil for a start. Which points to another longstanding issue with McCartney’s latterday output: who among his young collaborators is going to tell the guy who wrote Eleanor Rigby that a couple of his songs aren’t up to much? At its best, however, Egypt Station is an affirmation of an enduring talent, the work of an artist who has no need to try and be anything other than what he is.

This week Alexis listened to:

Big Red Machine – Hymnostic

The collaborative album by Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner is a beautifully balanced mix of the traditional and the out-there: here a Band-like song emerges from static and distorted human beatboxing.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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