Saturday, September 15, 2018
Paul McCartney's "Egypt Station": Track-by-mostly underwhelming track
The hype engine pushing Paul McCartney's "Egypt Station" is running so furiously hard that you'd think it would've blown a gasket by now.
Over the past several weeks, Paul has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows and provided enlightening (by Paul standards) interviews that have been quoted by hundreds of news outlets around the world (the media sure jumped on that "Churchill" story, didn't they, even though Macca has recounted it before, as far back as 21 years ago in his memoir, "Many Years from Now.")
But does this mean "Egypt Station" is some sort of late period masterpiece or just that the media has jumped on all of these opportunities to spotlight an important, still popular, icon in our midst?
Let me put any confusion to rest: "Egypt Station" is no masterpiece. It's actually a bit of a mess. The album contains far fewer well-crafted and memorable songs than it's immediate predecessor, "New" and is no match at all for his last truly excellent album, 2005's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard."
Paul has called "Egypt Station" a return to crafting "album albums" - carefully sequenced LPs that work well as a start-to-finish listen - and he bookends it "Venus and Mars" and "Sgt. Pepper" style with a repeated theme. Here it's not an actual reprised song, but two bits of ambient sound titled "Opening Station" and "Station II."
The real tunes that fall between these fragments don't cohere at all but represent a typically inconsistent mish-mash of lost opportunities, dashed off ephemera and a couple of tunes that, maybe, will hold up as pleasant-to-hear deep tracks in coming years. But, sadly, there's not a genuinely great tune in the batch. This is no "Ram" or "Band on the Run" by any stretch of the imagination.
Let's take a look track-by-track.
"I Don't Know" is the first real tune on the album. I reviewed it back in June when it was streamed as a non-physical "double A-side" with this album's second real song, "Come On to Me."
As I said back then, the track has a beautiful, pensive melody reminiscent of John Lennon's unreleased "Now and Then." The production is also nice, which excellent piano work and trademark melodic bass both supplied by Paul. There are some nice lyrics in the verses, too - "Crows at my window/dogs at my door." I just wish there was more to the chorus than the song's title being repeated seemingly hundreds of times.
"Come On to Me" is also a great instrumental production, with touches of both the Beatles and Wings, and it's catchy as all get out. But the juvenile, barely-an-entendre title phrase ruins it for me. TMI, Grandpa. It's one of those frustrating Paul songs featuring a great melody that, with a little more work and imagination in the lyrics, could be a great song.
The next tune, "Happy With You," on the other hand, I think is a great track. The arrangement captures Paul in pastoral mode, playing a folkish melody on acoustic guitar joined by flutes.
The lyrics, as on "Early Days" and "On My Way to Work" from "New," seem genuinely autobiographical and, as a result, have a depth of feeling and authenticity missing from the rest of this album. Recounting days wasted, literally, drinking and getting stoned, Paul sings about the simple, yet complex joys of newfound love.
Paul's vocals, which sound quite good on most of the LP considering his advancing years, are naked here. You can hear the age in his voice and how sometimes hitting higher notes is a challenge, but one he succeeds in. There's a nice, and appropriate, vulnerability on display.
Some fans are uncomfortable with "Old Paul," hearing how a 76-year-old man sounds when all the instruments and overdubs are stripped away, but I'd actually like to hear more of him.
"Who Cares," next up, is a craftsmanlike bit of electro-boogie that takes aim at bullies and, I imagine, critics. It's a solid song but without much imagination to it - the sort of thing Paul can do in his sleep. The opening bit of guitar feedback sounds directly lifted from the Beatles' "It's All Too Much."
There are, in fact, lots of Beatley touches throughout the album: arpeggiated and backwards guitar parts, loping piano and drums, and baroque-style keyboards. Sometimes these references work, but often they just seem arbitrary.
There's a looseness in Paul's approach on the LP that's nice, though. He seems willing to give anything a try, such as - on several tracks - "singing" drum and bass parts. The bad thing is when this lacksadaisical approach carries over into his lyric writing.
Case in point, the already notorious "Fuh You," which is embarrassing not just for it's desperately "edgy" title but also for its dated, circa 2005 pop production. This is Paul trying his hand at sounding current but missing the mark entirely.
Maybe the song's gimmicky title will shift a few theoretical units, but it's a worthless piece of music that signals the arrival of the half-baked center of the album. There is a whole string of weak songs trailing in its wake.
"Confidante," for example, is a mainly acoustic tune that starts off intriguingly but never pays off.
"You used to be my confidant," Paul sings, but we never get a clue as to why this person no longer fills this role. It's the type of tune that reinforces my feeling that, too often, Paul latches onto a word or phrase, builds a nice melody around it, and calls it good.
Ditto "People Want Peace." Nice tune, nice sentiment and it all evaporates the moment the song fades out.
"Dominos," on the other hand, is Good Track Number Two on the album. It's a very melodic tune reminiscent of Paul's work on "Flower in the Dirt," opening with a high-sung vocal and acoustic guitar followed by Jeff Lynne-style drums, guitar and keyboards, and Beatley/ Rutley vocal refrains. While nothing special, the lyrics make sense and they work.
This song is followed by "Back in Brazil," truly the oddest track on the album. I suspect that Paul latched onto the vaguely south of the border electronic rhythm the runs throughout the track, was reminded of Brazil and tried building a Desmond and Molly-type story around it. There are some nice jazzy harmonies and chord progressions in the tune, but the lyrics are flimsy to the point of nothingness.
"Hand in Hand," next, sounds like a first draft of "I Don't Know." It's a piano-based ballad about wanting to join a loved one in life, but it's so minor key and sad sounding that you're left thinking this is a relationship best avoided. Again, Paul has a phrase in his head, but doesn't surround it with genuine ideas.
"Do It Now" is an imploring, somewhat annoying tune built on a psychedelic-era Beatles-style harpsichord pattern. The song's title is based on one of the aphorisms Paul's dad used in lecturing his sons. And, you have to admit, Paul is great about getting things done. I just wish Old Jim had expanded on his advice to say, "Do it now. Then sharpen and edit the hell out of it." If that were the case, then maybe Paul might've avoided subjecting us to "Caesar Rock,"a dumb piece of studio jammery that has nothing to offer instrumentally or, especially, lyrically.
Next is the LP's ambitious with a capital A track: "Despite Repeated Warnings." The song has been getting a lot of attention in the media for being about Donald Trump. The lyrics, which play off a metaphor of a ship being steered into disaster by a crazed sea captain, are good.
Paul has said he wrote the tune about his concerns over climate change, but it could pertain to any other failure to provide necessary leadership in times of crisis. "Those who shout the loudest/may not always be the smartest/but they have their proudest moments/right before they fall," Paul sings. Nice line, but the song as a whole is undermined by its arrangement.
"Despite Repeated Warnings" is a stab at producing a long-form tune ala "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" or "Band on the Run." But the different sections Paul stitches together here don't hold the same interest instrumentally or melodically. They actually sound pretty generic, with lots of boring, bluesy guitar fills and cheap-sounding synth licks scattered throughout. Worst of all are the vocal choruses that remind me of Queen, but without the amusing campiness.
Weirdly, there are bits of Queen in "Do it Now," too, which makes me wonder if Paul's been on a belated Freddie Mercury kick.
The final tune on the album is a mash-up of studio filler: "Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link." Nothing but jamming and gibberish. It probably amused Paul at the time of recording, but is a waste of space here.
But that's not all! Dutiful fan that I am, I bought the Target edition of "Egypt Station," which comes with two extra tracks. I was hesitant at first, because is more mediocre McCartney really a bonus? But fans also know that Paul has a history of relegating some of his better tunes to what we used to call B-sides. And that's the case here.
Neither "Get Started" or "Nothing for Free" are great tracks, but they're both enjoyable and better than many of the songs that made it onto the album per se.
"Get Started" has an effervescent, Traveling Wilburys feel to it, with more Jeff Lynne drums sounds and twanging guitar. There are lots of nice harmonies and hooks throughout. The lyrics ... are there.
"Nothing for Free," meanwhile, is another studio goof but with some interesting electronic sounds and dumb-but-fun words. I love the line "my brain stopped working today." The tune is akin to some of the experiments from Paul's Firemen releases or "McCartney II." Sometimes being playful pays off.
So, there you go. Apart from "Happy With You" nothing here will join my list of Paul's best work of the past 20 years, though I'll keep "Dominos" and the two bonus tracks on my digital playlist. As an album, though, I'd have to say "Egypt Station" isn't really a stop worth making.