Emotional Miscues

Stones, Dylan and McCartney struggle to redefine themselves with new albums

Near the end of the quietly desperate "Not Dark Yet," Dylan sings "I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still." As usual with Dylan, everything is the opposite of what it appears. It actually looks like he's standing still, stuck in a mire of self-pity. But in his own crabby way, he's moving forward, coming to terms with the heartbreak of dashed expectations.

As solid a collection as this album may be, there are times when you can't help but feel frustrated that a sympathetic producer like Lanois wasn't available to Dylan in the mid-'70s, when both his voice and muse were in sturdier form. Back then, Dylan was haphazardly laying down masterpieces like "Idiot Wind" and "Isis," with very little respect for the recording process. But if his audience occasionally would like to tidy up his past, it's not alone. Based on the elegiac evidence of Time Out of Mind, Dylan would love nothing more than to do the same.

Compared with either the Stones or Dylan, Paul McCartney has always been both more conservative and more daring. Even during his Beatle days, Macca would venture off into Stockhausen-inspired tape-loop experiments while simultaneously covering his ass with sure-fire commercial confections like "Hello Goodbye." In 1991, he took a bold step--since followed by the likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Billy Joel--into the realm of classical composition, with The Liverpool Oratorio.

Though this extended work was widely criticized for clumsy lyrics (what did you expect from the guy who wrote "Bip Bop"?) and tedious instrumental passages, the oratorio had its moments. Taken as individual songs, such pieces as "Do You Know Who You Are?" and "Born in Liverpool" were among the most inspired and intricate melodies McCartney had hatched since John said "I want a divorce." They offered some indication that The Cute One had been bottling up some of his musical sophistication, and that a more ambitious form could pull it out of him.

Well, if there's a great classical composer hiding behind Paulie's smiling facade, it doesn't come out to play on Standing Stone. A symphonic work commissioned by EMI--kinda like ABC "commissioning" Peter Jennings to read the news--for its centennial celebration, Standing Stone fancies itself a symphonic poem, using instrumental and choral coloring to convey the life of ancient Celtic man. In the sense that much of Standing Stone is boring, repetitious and simple-minded, it succeeds.

The beginning of the first movement sounds like Sgt. Pepper's opening orchestral warm-up stretched out for five minutes and propelled by out-of-time whacks on a timpani. You keep waiting for McCartney to put his own melodic stamp on the proceedings, but in his effort to be serious, he's denied the exuberance that carried him through even his weakest recordings. Despite the flawless work of the London Symphony Orchestra, it all comes off like second-rate John Williams. Golden slumbers, indeed.

The sad fact is that McCartney experimented with classical motifs much more successfully his first time out, back in 1966 with "Love in the Open Air," from The Family Way soundtrack. But back then, he was collaborating with George Martin, just as he collaborated with Carl Davis for The Liverpool Oratorio. And if we've learned anything about McCartney over the years, it's that he doesn't work well alone.

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