Sometime around the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it became cool to like Justin Timberlake.
He had, via Saturday Night Live, revealed a winning comic presence, happily lampooning himself while directing his musical talents toward absurd comedic ends.
Creatively, he had distanced himself from his teenybopper past, releasing sleek bangers in collaboration with the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell.
I remember sharing my skepticism with a coworker.
“You don’t like Justin Timberlake?” he said, screwing up his face, genuinely flummoxed.
But this guy was a good 6 or 7 years younger than me. He only knew part of the story.
See, I was in college during the boy-band era, a grown-ass man by law if not much else.
And if you were a grown-ass man during the boy band era, you may have had no real problem with ‘N Sync or The Backstreet Boys, may have considered them a goofy distraction, harmless junk food for tweens.
But you would, and I cannot stress this enough, sooner gouge both your eyes out than admit as much.
There was a generation gap to be reckoned with, and the subject looked very different depending on which side you were on.
In 60-plus years of performing, Paul McCartney has straddled not only generations, but entire eras, movements artistic, social and political. And yet, like the other “cute one,” McCartney seems perpetually misunderstood, misremembered, mis-seen by fans of a certain age (this is where all McCartney-Timberlake comparisons will end, though they are not necessarily inapt: both are natural performers, inveterate hams, most definitely lovers and not fighters).
From my side of the generational divide (too young for the Beatles or Wings, juuuust old enough to remember Spies Like Us), McCartney has often resembled a Dad.
And here’s my hot take: that’s because he is one.
And I don’t mean, simply, he has sired children. What I mean is that Paul McCartney lived an entire life by 1969. A whole universe contained in eight years and he was its author.
He was a middle-aged artist by the time he was 30.
So, I’m not here to tell you that Paul McCartney is cool (yes I am). I’m here to tell you that the man’s entire catalogue must be not so much re-examined, but re-seen, viewed as a whole entity, a lifetime’s work.
One that starts with a Dad and his family making music during the height of 70’s rock-God excess.
If we can accept that dichotomy–that McCartney, though roughly the same age as the Plants, Pages, Jaggers and Richards(es?) who defined hedonistic arena stardom, was in fact of a different generation than his peers due to The Beatles’ unprecedented, time-bending artistic advancements–then we can look at the man and his work anew.
Here’s a brain teaser for you: Paul McCartney has been uncool for so long that it’s actually uncool to think he’s uncool.
We’ve seen it all before: the awkward mullets, the cringey Michael Jackson collaborations, the forced and phony 9/11 response song, “Freedom.”
We compare him to John Lennon and he inevitably comes up wanting. We re-examine our comparisons. We get hip to the notion that he was the “real” driving force behind The Beatles’ studio years, a freak musician who outshined his bandmates in many ways but whose manic creative energy and tendency toward primadonna-hood splintered the group irrevocably.
We see him at nearly 80 years old, still rocking, playing the elder statesman, the dignified and worthy steward of The Beatles’ legacy. We watch him tour Liverpool with James Corden and we tear up a little, despite ourselves.
But how often do we dip into the catalogue? I mean, my God, the music this guy made!
I often hold Paul McCartney in the same mental space in which I hold Robin Williams or Jim Carrey (and I have allotted a good deal of mental space to those two dudes over the years). All three are members of the “just can’t help it” club. Think of Williams or Carrey–the comedy just pours out of them. They are vessels, conduits of relentless, unstoppable creative torrents.
And yeah, it gets annoying sometimes. Annoying, cloying, overwhelming. There’s just so much coming at you.
Let’s slow the tide a little, sift through its currents.
First, check out McCartney.
His first solo release, a low-key, lo-fi dick move, it is, in its own way, as powerful a creative statement as Plastic Ono Band or All Things Must Pass. Where George went all out with a Phil Spector-produced triple album and John delved deep into his trauma, Paul retreated to his Scottish farm and self-recorded a beautiful, understated little record that lacks All Things’ sweep or Plastic Ono’s catharsis, but is absolutely filled with delightful musical moments, a stripped-down look at how a bummed out, heartbroken genius keeps himself sane.
Oh and it’s also got “Maybe I’m Amazed” on it.
Let me just say right now that this song–one, again, often relegated to the “AM Gold” bargain rack in the mind of the average person old enough to remember radio–is a song that an entire career could be hung on. And we’re just getting started.
Check out “Every Night,” “That Would Be Something,” “Junk,” “Momma Miss America.” Did I mention he self-recorded it and plays every instrument?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to run down every album, song by song. That’s what podcasts are for.
I’ll just say:
Check out Ram, his first proper studio solo album, well-known and beloved by Beatles junkies, unfamiliar to most passing fans. It contains Beatles-worthy moments of inspired whimsy (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”) and bizarre musical detours (“Monkberry Moon Delight”), White Album-style acoustic pastorals (“Heart of The Country”) and a banger of an opener–“Too Many People”– that comes as close as Paul can to outright dissing John in song (which is not very).
It’s also the first appearance of Linda McCartney on one of Paul’s records. Which brings me back to the middle-aged thing.
It is the stuff of McCartney legend (and probable hyperbole) that he and Linda never spent a night apart after getting married. He brought his wife and young children completely into his life as a performer. He didn’t want to be apart from her, so he put her in the band (which actually is rather romantic, isn’t it?).
He brought the idea of being a family man into rock stardom.
Does this seem a little uncool when compared against the debauched exploits of the likes of Zeppelin and the Stones? Does it matter? Time catches up with us all, and McCartney had already conquered the world.
Rob Sheffield may have put it best: “[McCartney] did less to fuck up his good luck than any rock star ever.”
Because How To Be A Rock Star is only one chapter of a deeper, far more interesting book the man inadvertently wrote: How To Live A Life As An Artist.
But I digress:
Check out Wild Life, the first Wings record.
You can’t help but notice that at least a quarter of it sucks.
But listen to “Mumbo.” An outrageous opener! So cool, so forward-looking! Listen to “Bip Bop” and “Tomorrow.” The musical ideas were pouring out of this guy, even if they sometimes remained half-realized. He was Williams/Carrey-ing it all over the place.
In fact, Wild Life is, in certain ways, a template for much of McCartney’s solo work: moments of delicious execution followed by utter duds (“Love is Strange” into “Wild Life” for instance). There’s something uniquely annoying about a McCartney brick. A mawkishness that somehow overpowers the senses, diminishing all the astounding music around it. It feels like a guy who makes it look this easy should never miss. Or…maybe not take quite so many shots.
Case in point: Wings At The Speed of Sound.
All I can tell you is, there are two good songs on this album and I could go the rest of my life without hearing the others again. But those two are “Let ‘Em In,” and “Silly Love Songs.”
Check out the much-lauded Band On The Run, then check out its troubled backstory, how McCartney had an album to record and no band to play on it so he said fuck it, I’ll do it myself.
Check out Venus and Mars. It, as the kids say, slaps.
Check out London Town. It’s worth it for “With A Little Luck,” if not much else.
Check out Tug of War. A masterpiece.
Check out Press to Play. Not a masterpiece. But at least four great “high 80’s” tracks.
Check out Flowers In The Dirt, co-written with Elvis Costello (but get the deluxe edition with the original demos so you can hear the album that should have been).
Check out his 1991 MTV Unplugged performance, the first entry in an-era defining format and a crack performance by a guy who cut his teeth and made his bones strumming an acoustic guitar.
Check out Flaming Pie, a self-consciously Beatles-reminiscent album written in the wake of the Anthology project. “Calico Skies” and “Beautiful Night” alone make it worth the trip, though “The World Tonight,” “Young Boy,” “Souvenir” and “Flaming Pie” make a convincing argument for sticking around.
And check out 2006’s Chaos and Creation In The Backyard.
In fact, check out this quote first. It surfaced in my social media feed recently, and this entire rambling post had its genesis in my (in)digestion of it:
“I listened to ‘Jenny Wren’. It’s from a Paul McCartney album [‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’] you wouldn’t think twice about– not to be harsh – but it is the most astonishingly beautiful song. I suddenly realised that there was an entire catalogue that I hadn’t paid attention to that was full of these stunningly beautiful songs. I’d never thought [McCartney] was bad, but I’d overlooked him, certainly.”Laura Marling, British singer-songwriter
I’m not gonna lie. I don’t really know who Laura Marling is. And I’m probably not gonna find out.
A Google search tells me that she is all of 30 years old, and sure, the initial impulse was to get all stodgy about a 30 year old musician’s implication that they might have the right, the permission–nay, the ability!–to even suggest that Paul McCartney “was bad.” I mean, Not to be harsh? Gimme a break! The man is a knight!
But the truth is, I was Laura Marling, too.
We were all Laura Marling.
Consider Chaos and Creation. Even if I have not totally overlooked it, I have been guilty of paying it little mind. It’s ethos–mortality and aging–is alien to a young person’s conception of the world, anathema to the ever-youthful spirit of pop music.
And I had never considered Chaos as a piece of work made by a man in his 60’s on the heels of a failed marriage, and that on the heels of his first wife’s death. This is the stuff of which Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction are made, and yet we demand eternal youth of our rock stars, in both set list and appearance.
Viewed this way, it’s hard not to see beautiful new dimensions of songs like “Follow Me,” “Friends To Go,” and “Too Much Rain.”
It’s hard not to look back into the man’s entire catalogue and behold a wealth of “stunningly beautiful songs” so copious it boggles the mind.
If Laura Marling–whoever she is–can evolve, we all can evolve. Paul finally stopped dyeing his hair. He’s 78 years old and looks it. There will be an answer, let it be.
Come back in 20 years. Maybe I’ll be writing about Justin Timberlake.
But don’t count on it.