The comeback album is a tale as old as time itself: artist gets irrelevant, artist releases career-redefining album, artist reaches creative milestone and/or receives indie cred. Look at Bobby Womack or David Bowie for recent examples. But what happens if you never leave the spotlight? What happens if you get headlining spots at major festivals and play season finales of “Saturday Night Live”? Is a comeback even possible?
Paul McCartney probably doesn’t, nor will he ever, need a comeback. Still, nothing in the past decade, even his best work from the period, has reached the heights of “Hey Jude” or “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” or even “Calico Skies.” It has felt, at times, that good old Macca was just going through the motions, even if his motions are unparalleled.
That leads us to New, his first album including original songwriting in six years. Whatever Paul McCartney’s done with himself in the past year or so has breathed new life into his work, resulting in an LP that represents not only his best album in decades but also perhaps the opening to a new chapter in the legend’s career. New is simultaneously modern and timeless, representing the height of McCartney’s recent work and a creative peak that is seconded only by McCartney’s initial solo work in the 1970s and, of course, his work with The Beatles.
Everything on New, perhaps, could probably have been released at a different point in the man’s career. The title track, “New,” sounds like something off a mid-career Beatles album, employing the psych-pop that typified the McCartney contributions to some of The Beatles’ best work (“Your Mother Should Know,” “For No One”). “Save Us” and “Queenie Eye” have the edgier sounds of his work with Wings, and “On My Way to Work” and “Hosanna” carry with them the domestic bliss and folk-pop of 1973’s excellent Ram. McCartney has tried going modern before (see 1980’s electronic McCartney II), and it has generally failed; New succeeds because of his willingness to reach back rather than to force himself forward.
But “been there, done that” is exactly what has led to the downfall of rock’s greatest stars. What makes New any different? For one thing, McCartney has teamed up with a veritable who’s who of British producers. The four who worked on the album, Mark Ronson, Giles Martin, Ethan Johns, and Paul Epworth, have pretty much every modern artist under the sun in their collective production discography (Ronson alone has produced for Adele and Ghostface Killah), but all bring a crisp, modern, and, well, new sound to New. Even the simplest tracks, like the Epworth-produced “Hosanna,” take deceptively small performances and make them seem grand without sacrificing sincerity or adding unnecessary melodrama. What’s more, these producers add modern flare to some of the album’s best tracks: some, like “Appreciate” and “Road,” have synth drumlines that never feel derivative or hokey.
But to focus on the producers here would undercut Paul McCartney as a songwriter. New is the most infectiously entertaining, engaging LP that he’s released in at least thirty years. Album standout “Alligator,” besides being one of the better tracks of McCartney’s career, is a bluesy, up-tempo track that brims with the excitement and energy of McCartney’s voice. Tracks like “New” and “I Can Bet” explode with joy; the title track’s chorus, “All my life/I never knew/What I could be, what I could do/Then we were new,” is essentially an ode to rejuvenation. It could very well be a metaphor for McCartney’s creative process.
Still, for all of its effervescence and enthusiasm, New is equally defined by notions of aging and melancholy. Even the brightest tracks have an air of sadness and insecurity about them; the chorus of “New” focuses heavily on the phrase “don’t look at me.” Nostalgia dominates the bittersweet “Early Days,” with memories of the teenaged Beatles paired with the phrase “So many times I had to change the pain to laughter/Just to keep from getting crazy.” On both “Save Us” and “Alligator,” McCartney seems focused on finding “someone who can save [him].”
Not every track on New is as soaked in melancholy or nostalgia (tracks like “On My Way to Work” and “Looking at Her” display textbook McCartney optimism), but the album is certainly dominated by the emotion, and gives the strong songwriting on New a sense of unity.
So maybe Paul McCartney didn’t need to make New. Maybe, if he retired right now, he’d still be remembered as a Beatle and a hell of a songwriter. But New challenges the image of the fading rocker, the subpar late-career legend. Boasting some of his strongest songwriting, New sees McCartney just as ready to delight listeners as he was when he wrote “Love Me Do.” Fifty years in, Macca still has something new to say, and here’s to hoping he’s around to do so for fifty more.