All His Talent Seems So Far Away

Paul McCartney
Flaming Pie
(Capitol Records)

A mere eight years ago, Paul McCartney seemed relevant, viable, still alive--not just an old man coasting on history but a singer and songwriter worth listening to, no matter the resume. Working once more with a partner his equal (and maybe then some), McCartney seemed to have stumbled across the revelation that he needed a partner to point him in the right direction, since his own compass was shattered. His collaboration with Elvis Costello--which yielded 11 songs that have appeared on McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt and Off the Ground and Costello's Spike, Mighty Like a Rose and All This Useless Beauty and one other track still unreleased--rekindled something long extinguished in the sated McCartney; alone with a catalyst, his silly love songs were suddenly somber and restless, his light pop infused with the darkness of long-gone youth. Such songs as "So Like Candy," "You Want Her Too," "Veronica," "Shallow Grave" and "Pad, Paws & Claws" ranked alongside both men's finest work--not products of past greatness but hints at future treasures.

But somewhere between "Yesterday" and tomorrow, McCartney found himself looking back again--and like Lot's wife, he has suffered the consequences. Not counting such throwaway side projects as 1994's Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, his techno-ambient toss-off with Youth or his humdrum "classical" excursion Liverpool Oratorio, McCartney has released live album after live album filled with Beatles rehashes, Wings redux and rock 'n' roll oldies; by the time of Paul Is Live--with its vile Abbey Road "parody" cover--never did the term "live album" seem so oxymoronic. The man was consumed with resurrecting past glories--or, worse, he was obsessed with proving he was the genius he most likely never was; he was merely half of a magnificent songwriting team, a mere quarter of a stellar band treated far too respectfully with the passage of time.

In 27 years, since the release of McCartney, he has yet to give us an album worth playing all the way through; a McCartney best-of could be whittled down to a CD single. We have merely taken him for granted because of what was, not what is. Hence the success of the Anthology series, which consisted of refuse and abandoned outtakes snapped up by desperate consumers because even table scraps are more substantive than what has just come out of the oven. The release of Flaming Pie is hardly an epic moment in pop music--it may have a higher profile coming as it does in Anthology's wake, but no one will mistake it for the real thing. Paul McCartney now writes songs on sailboats and on vacation, while waiting for wife Linda to cook up some vegetarian surprise for a New York Times reporter, or while doing nothing more than killing a rich man's time.

For an album from a man who has gotten a free ride on his bottomless charm, Flaming Pie is a lifeless, bloated, bland affair. Unlike the few veterans who've aged with a certain graceful gracelessness--Neil Young, Patti Smith, Van Morrison--McCartney seems somehow disconnected from the music he now makes; it no longer feels as if he must make music, merely that he does because he knows nothing else, because it's expected of him. Playing nearly every instrument (from electric guitar to harmonium to Hammond to, of course, bass) and still sounding like a young boy's voice trapped in an old man's frame, McCartney has written an album that seeks resolution and resurrection. He pines for the '60s, leading off the recording with a song about the days when he and his pals would sit around, get high and write songs: "For a while we could sit, smoke a pipe, discuss all the vast intricacies of life," he sing-speaks, like a man recovering a memory under hypnosis. "But we always came back to the song we were singing at any particular time." From the very start, he's like an old man waving a faded photo beneath your nose and yelling, No, really, that was me! Singing of "cosmic solutions" and "groovy times," he's trying so God-awful hard to capture yesterday's thunderstorm.

The title track is even more desperate: Appropriating John Lennon's ancient claim that the Beatles took their name from a vision he had of a man in a flaming pie, McCartney rewrites "Lady Madonna," hires Jeff Lynne, and turns the whole blessed affair into the third Traveling Wilburys recording. Indeed, Lynne's paw prints are all over Flaming Pie; every song he touches turns into bubble-gum garage-rock, guitars echoing so much you'd think they were recorded in a toilet at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Lynne has made a career out of reviving forgotten heroes--he put Bob Dylan on a respirator and got the man back on his feet, no easy feat--but he has drained McCartney through the same filter; he could make the Ramones sound like Tom Petty, and it's no different for McCartney, who's no doubt thankful for the help up. Maybe that's why he traded Costello for Steve Miller, one of the few musicians more washed-up than McCartney. Their stab at Texas blues, "Used to Be Bad" (buck up, boys--you still are), makes Boz Scaggs sound like Howlin' Wolf.

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