Sunday, January 23, 2011

2001: Sir Paul Looks Back

I have to say that Sir Paul's batting average has only improved in the decade since I wrote this, thanks to the very satisfying Electric Arguments and a number of highlights from Memory Almost Full and Chaos and Creation.

If the Beatles were quite obviously greater than the sum of their parts, on their own they were just as clearly, er, those parts. As a Lennon partisan, I always argue that he had the best batting average among the ex-Fabs. That is, out of the total number of tracks issued, he had the fewest percentage that were absolute embarrassments to the Beatles legacy.

But it can also be argued that McCartney's prolific nature dragged down his own average. Without any peers around to rein in his excesses (or inspire self-censorship), Sir Paul continued to fill album after album (twenty studio discs to date) with bushels of chaff and a few kernels of wheat. Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, every Macca disc can be counted on to have at least one overlooked gem. But who's got the patience to sort through them all?

It's a situation that calls out for a smart compilation, but unfortunately, Wingspan is not that anthology. Consumer alert: the first disc (Hits) has seventeen tracks in common with his 1987 best-of (All the Best!), which itself duplicated 75% of his 1978 best-of (Wings Greatest). But nearly all of them are the same overplayed radio fluff that's emblematic of his solo career: flashes of brilliance surrounded by awesome banality. What the Cute One really needs is a compilation of his greatest non-hits.

Unfortunately, the second disc (History) isn't exactly that. Which is not to say it doesn't have a lot of worthy material, but much of it is shoulda-been hits like "Too Many People" and "Helen Wheels" or almost-hits like "Maybe I'm Amazed" and the great "Every Night." See, chart position is how Paul knows we love him. Always thin-skinned to criticism, he repeatedly points to his sales figures as evidence of his continued worth.

But if Sir Paul or his label had decided that everybody who wants to endlessly replay "Silly Love Songs" or "Jet" on their home stereo already owned one of the other anthologies, there might have been room for less commercial highlights like "Picasso's Last Words" or "Little Lamb Dragonfly." More to the point, there could have been more material post-dating Lennon's demise, which is when Paul's batting average mysteriously began to improve. My theory is that his old mate has been haunting him ever since, mercilessly ridiculing his more "fruity" efforts, and demanding more consistent and less frequent releases.

Before John left the planet, McCartney's undeniable talents as a melodist and arranger were reflected in ear-candy hits and charming obscurities alike. But after 1980, Macca concentrated more on the quality of his lyrics, built on his legacy as one of rock's all-time greatest bassists, and began to seek out collaborators more worthy of him - notably Elvis Costello, but also including Stevie Wonder, Stanley Clarke, David Gilmour and Dave Edmunds. Unfortunately, none of that material finds its way onto Wingspan. Neither does any of the experimental work, often issued pseudonymously, which culminated in last year's Liverpool Sound Collage, in which Sir Paul makes like a middle-aged Beck.

I guess all of that will have to wait for the inevitable Paul McCartney boxed set. But for his sake, I hope England's richest rocker lets the ghost of John Lennon pick the tracks.

UPDATE: I don't think I made myself perfectly clear in this review. The fact is, I get a kick of of most of McCartney's fluffy pop hits (though the fluffiest among them tend to wear out their welcome). It's just that I didn't think that the anthology in question fully reflected the breadth of his talent. Though it was issued in 2001, the most recent track was then 15 years old, and thus it skipped over what is arguably some of Paul's most vital solo work. Here's hoping for a new compilation oriented more to the last 25 years.

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