The Week In Pop

Thankfully Paul McCartney’s New Album Only Pretends To Be Modern Pop Music

At age 76, Paul McCartney is still horny as hell. Judging by the advance singles from the former Beatle’s new album Egypt Station, the guy who once hollered “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” continues to have a very active libido on the eve of his 17th solo studio album.

Upon announcing the project, his first collection of new songs since 2013’s New, McCartney shared its first two proper songs. The first, “I Don’t Know,” is the kind of self-reflective ballad you’d expect from an aging rock icon in the post-American Recordings era: “I got crows at my window and dogs at my door/ But I don’t think I can take anymore/ What am I doing wrong? I don’t know/ Now what’s the matter with me? I don’t know.” The other, a rumbling rocker called “Come On To Me,” begins with the lyric, “I saw you flash a smile, that seemed to me to say/ You wanted so much more than casual conversation.” From there he proceeds with more thinly veiled allusions to getting it on, at which point a bouncy rhythm out of the “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” playbook takes on the same effect as the bouncing bedsprings on any number of rap and R&B songs.

Such semi-explicit fare is not what I expect anymore from the cool, kindly grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll. Even in the Beatles’ heyday, McCartney was the polite gentleman of the group, the sentimental sap responsible for “Yesterday” and “Penny Lane.” (No shots; I, a fellow sentimental sap, love those songs unreservedly.) He’s continued to maintain a squeaky-clean reputation in the intervening decades and in recent years has become such a rarefied unifying force that his participation can redeem even garish James Corden stunts.

This is a man who can be counted on to stoke the embers of nostalgia by simply opening his mouth, be it to sing songs or share anecdotes. He is the Beatles’ formidable legacy rendered in flesh and blood, a true larger-than-life figure who I mostly associate with warm fuzzies at this point. So to hear him intone, “Did you come on to me? Well I come on to you” — it threw me for a loop, you know? And when his next single found him outright declaring, “I wanna fuck you,” my face melted into the scream emoji on contact.

Overt sexuality is only one of the ways McCartney adapts to today’s pop landscape on Egypt Station. He recruited Greg Kurstin — the gold-plated hit-maker behind Adele’s “Hello,” Sia’s “Chandelier,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” and countless others — to produce all but one track. The lone exception, the aforementioned “Fuh You,” was produced by Ryan Tedder, another one of today’s most in-demand hired guns. Tedder makes sure his big Macca moment blends neatly into the guys-with-guitars corner of the top 40 alongside Imagine Dragons, Shawn Mendes, and Tedder’s own OneRepublic. But even the Kurstin tracks have a distinctly modern sheen, McCartney’s unmistakable style Instagram-filtered into the realm of 2018 pop-rock.

Kurstin, who also has worked extensively with indie-leaning pop acts like Lily Allen, Chvrches, Maggie Rogers, and Tegan And Sara, has lately become a go-to guy for aging rockers seeking to reinvigorate their pop prospects. Until now “aging” has ranged from post-punk iconoclasts Devo to O.C.-era crossover stars the Shins, most recently with a focus on Gen-X mainstays like Foo Fighters and Beck. (Before his high-powered producer days, Kurstin played in Beck’s live band.) So although McCartney predates all those dinosaurs by decades, pairing him with Kurstin isn’t the craziest idea in the world. And the resulting album sounds more invigorated than I’d expect from any human three quarters of a century deep, to say nothing of a music legend who stopped releasing legendary music several administrations ago.

At this point I should clarify that anyone expecting to have their life changed by a new Paul McCartney album in 2018 will be sorely disappointed. Egypt Station isn’t RAM or Band On The Run or even Pipes Of Peace. If McCartney is in the zone here, it’s the comfort zone. What I can promise you is that if McCartney’s music has already changed your life — if you’re among those of us who worship the Beatles as musical royalty and chafe at the suggestion that they’re overrated, who’ve been enthralled by one of McCartney’s career-spanning live shows and cling to Beatles fandom as a beloved family tradition — you’ll probably be comforted by the album too.

As with New’s title track and “Queenie Eye,” the high points on Egypt Station are high enough to ensure they won’t derail the momentum at McCartney concerts. The best of them, deep cut “Despite Repeated Warnings,” is a classic multi-part McCartney buildup in the tradition of “Band On The Run,” ascending from warm piano chords to a pulsing backbeat to grandiose orchestral Broadway rock and back down into a string-laden float. Closing track “Hunt You Down” operates in the same vein but shifts shape more subtly, piecing together rock, orchestral, and electronic sounds into a nervy groove before easing into a lengthy blues outro. In form, function, and spirit, these are throwbacks to the spliced-fragment medley at the end of Abbey Road, except these are tied together thematically, sometimes to their detriment. (On “Despite Repeated Warnings,” McCartney tries to force a convoluted narrative about a ship captain to make a point about democracy.)

Cycling back to the top of the tracklist, “I Don’t Know” and another early track, “Happy With You,” are some of the prettiest ballads McCartney has written in years. One, a plaintive piano number about the inevitability of hurting those we love, gets a lot of mileage out of toggling between major and minor keys, McCartney’s innate sense of melody holding it all together as ever. The other leans on finger-plucked guitar arpeggios á la “Blackbird” and features some truly tender expressions of romantic contentment. Meanwhile “Who Cares” complements its chin-out blues strut with this confident advice: “Who cares what the idiots say? Who cares what the idiots do?” And the raunchy sex jams, while awkward, are also ridiculously catchy Paul McCartney pop songs buoyed by rich arrangements. “Fuh You” expands beyond chipper radio bait into chamber-pop quirkiness. “Come On To Me” ends in a barrage of celebratory brass and, when the smoke clears, sitar.

The album’s relatively sleepy second half lacks for memorable moments. “Confidante” and “Hand In Hand” respectively prove McCartney does not simply crap out genius every time he touches an acoustic guitar or piano. All I can say for DOA protest song “People Want Piece” is at least it’s better than his goofy post-9/11 single “Freedom.” “Do It Now” is not a strong enough song to bear the weight of so much shmaltz, while “Dominoes” barely registers at all. Credit is due, however, for the smooth electric piano shimmy “Back In Brazil” and the lively, amorphous, utterly weird “Caesar Rock.” (Oddly, the latter, not the former, is the one that sounds like it’s using bossa nova Casio presets.)

McCartney may be one of the original pop stars, but he has no business making a 2018-vintage pop album. His freak 2015 hit with Kanye West and Rihanna, “FourFiveSeconds,” leveraged him more as a status symbol than a musical contributor; McCartney even admitted that while Kanye was sampling and manipulating his guitar noodlings, “I didn’t even realize that I was making songs.” Fortunately, despite its flirtations with the sound and substance of today’s pop music, Egypt Station is mostly just another Paul McCartney album on the pile — good for a few familiar dopamine squirts but even better as an excuse to parade McCartney through the media and keep him on tour.

No one should take it for granted that McCartney is still going strong more than five decades into his career. His contemporary Paul Simon has a new album out tomorrow too, In The Blue Light, but it’s one of those self-cannibalizing late-career projects where an artist reworks their earlier material, an album that can be viewed as a career coda amidst a farewell tour. Lots of his other peers have retired or died off. By comparison, McCartney shows no signs of slowing down. He’s still fully engaged with the business of delighting the masses, and as someone who has loaded him up with emotional significance, I remain delighted. Barring the outside possibility that he’s immortal, I’m going to weep someday when he dies, so any enjoyment derived from a new album is a bonus. I’ll gladly grit my teeth through a few lyrics about septuagenarian Beatle arousal if it means another trip down memory lane.

CREDIT: RB/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

CHART WATCH

It’s another big BTS week on the Billboard charts. With 185,000 equivalent album units and 141,000 in traditional sales, Love Yourself: Answer tops the Billboard 200, becoming the K-pop boy band’s second #1 album of the year and second overall following May’s Love Yourself: Tear. As Billboard points out, Answer collects 14 songs from Love Yourself: Tear and the previous EP Love Yourself: Her plus 10 brand new tracks. One of the new ones, “Idol” featuring Nicki Minaj, debuts at #11 on the Hot 100 this week, just barely missing the top 10.

Back on the Billboard 200: Travis Scott’s Astroworld, Drake’s Scorpion, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener, Nicki Minaj’s Queen, and Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys are at #2 through #6. Ozuna enjoys the year’s biggest debut for a Latin album as Aura enters at #7 on 49,000 units/7,000 sales. XXXTentacion’s 17 hops back to #8 thanks to a sales surge around the project’s one-year anniversary. And rounding out the top 10 are Juice WRLD and Cardi B.

Over on the Hot 100, Drake’s “In My Feelings” rules for an eighth straight week, bumping Drake’s career total to 47 weeks at #1. Per Billboard, that ties him with Usher for most among male solo acts. (Ahead of them both are Boyz II Men at 50 weeks, the Beatles at 59, Rihanna at 60, and Mariah Carey at 79.) Twenty-seven of Drake’s weeks on top have come this year, which means he only needs one more to tie another Usher record with 28 weeks at #1 in a calendar year among all artists, set in 2004 at Usher’s Confessions peak.

A pair of Cardi B hits remain at #2 and #3 — the Maroon 5 collab “Girls Like You” and the Bad Bunny/J Balvin summit “I Like It” — while Post Malone’s “Better Now” rises to a new #4 peak, bumping 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “Fefe” to #5. Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” is at #6, Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” (which features an uncredited Drake) is back up to #7, and Tyga and Offset’s “Taste” is at #8.

Reaching a new #9 high point comes “Love Lies,” a duet by Khalid and Fifth Harmony’s Normani. It’s Khalid’s second top 10 hit and first as a lead artist following his appearance on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255.” It’s the first top 10 visit as a solo artist for Normani, though she went to #4 with Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home.” She’s the second member of Fifth Harmony to land a solo top 10 single following Camila Cabello, who has three. Ariana Grande’s “God Is A Woman” closes out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Silk City & Dua Lipa – “Electricity”
Pop stars sometimes earn some of their biggest hits with one-off tracks between albums — features, soundtrack work, loosies, whatever. Justin Bieber’s career has been kept current by this kind of hit for almost three years now. Dua Lipa pulled the same trick with her Calvin Harris collab “One Kiss” earlier this year, and I won’t be surprised if this dalliance with Diplo and Mark Ronson lands her in the top 10 again. I have a feeling these aren’t the last superstar dance producers who’ll be saving their best beats for her deep, commanding voice.

Hozier – “Nina Cried Power” (Feat. Mavis Staples)
The man behind 2014’s inescapable “Take Me To Church” is back with a new surprise EP today, and… it’s actually not bad? The title track, “Nina Cried Power,” still sounds designed to impress Grammy voters and other folks who prize “authentically” “soulful” music, but there are enough compelling ideas there to elevate my estimation of the guy. If Mavis Staples is OK with him, I guess I am too.

Carrie Underwood – “Love Wins”
I applaud Carrie Underwood for attempting to create a sense of empathy and magnanimity among a listener base that significantly overlaps with President Trump’s core Evangelical supporters, and the fact that it sounds like you could slot it into a contemporary Christian worship compilation could just be a savvy Trojan horse situation. But since the lyrics are mostly ill-defined can’t-we-all-just-get-along babble, I fear her message will be missed, shrugged off, or redefined just like the teachings of that guy she once asked to take the wheel.

Lauv – “Superhero”
The latest from the guy behind that inescapable “I like me better when I’m with you” song is just as treacly insidiously catchy. I look forward to love-hating it for many months to come.

Broods – “Peach”
Five years past its peak, that electro-indie festival-core sound can still work pretty well!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Chris Martin and Dakota Johnson got matching tattoos. [Page Six]
  • Avril Lavigne’s new single “Head Above Water” is out 9/19. [Twitter]
  • Nicki Minaj had a “wardrobe malfunction” at Made In America. [Hollywood Life]
  • Next month Dua Lipa will release a deluxe version of her self-titled album featuring three new songs. [Twitter]
  • Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds spoke out against Eminem’s use of a homophobic slur on his new album. [Twitter]
  • Calvin Harris and Sam Smith celebrate ball culture in the video for “Promises.” [YouTube]
  • Here’s a clip from Ashlee Simpson and her husand Evan Ross’ new reality series ASHLEE+EVAN. (The couple also has a new single out tomorrow.) [E!]
  • Halsey has a small cameo as herself in A Star Is Born. [Billboard]
  • Ariana Grande’s ponytail starred in a Tonight Show sketch. [YouTube]
  • Sadly, a Quavo solo album is coming this month. Who’s gonna break it to this guy that he works better in a group setting? [Instagram]
  • Lil Xan shared a video of him peeing on his platinum plaque for “Betrayed.” [XXL]

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