If a rule book existed for aspiring rock critics, one of the tenets would be: "Must relentlessly slam Paul McCartney's post-Beatles career, lest you risk embarrassing unhipness."
In some ways, the intensity of McCartney's approximately 30 years of critical disfavor is hard to fathom. Because he was a peer of rock poets like Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend, and a collaborator of John Lennon's, the solo (and Wings commander) McCartney was dogged by the fact that his lyrics weren't worthy of a so-called "spokesman for a generation." But even at his peak, McCartney was never that kind of songwriter. He always had less in common with Dylan and Townshend than with pop tunesmiths like Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Jimmy Webb -- all expert melodists for whom lyrics were either someone else's job, or decidedly less important than music.
For all the shallowness and sentimentality of McCartney's worst post-Beatle work, he also managed to release gems like Band on the Run, Ram and Tug of War, as well as several singles that were among the radio highlights of their era. By comparison, Bacharach, Wilson and Webb had little to show for this period, yet they were spared the hailstorm of abuse directed at Macca (e.g., Ram, one of the best pop records of 1971, was branded "the nadir in the decomposition of '60s rock" in the pages of Rolling Stone).
As Elvis Costello asked in a late-'80s interview: "Compared to who is Paul McCartney not any good? Compared to the Inspiral Fuckin' Carpets?"
Stretching a thin argument past the breaking point, some critics adopted the revisionist notion that McCartney's later failures proved he was never all that good, that he was always a lightweight, carried by Lennon the whole time. By comparison, when Bacharach went through a quarter-century creative nosedive from 1971-'96, did anyone suggest that his '60s hits weren't really that great? Of course not. The lameness of "That's What Friends Are For" didn't erase Bacharach's earlier achievements, anymore than the wretchedness of Psychoderelict or The Iron Man negated Townshend's catalogue of songs for The Who. So why was this argument applied to McCartney?
The reason McCartney is attacked with such knee-jerk vehemence has as much to do with his cutesy, thumbs-up public persona as with his actual work. Brian Wilson can put out a piece of crap (Imagination, anyone?) and retain his genius aura, because rock-crits have a hard-on for the myth of the tortured madman, driven to the brink of insanity by his chemically enhanced muse (Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston). McCartney isn't really any more whimsical than these artists, and he's certainly not any more erratic, he's just harder to like because he seems so calculating, so self-promoting, so pleased with himself -- so goddamned normal.
But if Macca's gotten an unfair rap over the years, that doesn't change the fact that something did go out of his work after Abbey Road. He stopped making demands on himself, no longer interested in the distinctions between a pleasant fragment and a complete song. It's easy to see that the mid-to-late-'60s McCartney benefited from the stimulation of life as a bachelor in Swinging London, while he subsequently settled into a static domestic existence that may have made him happy, but gave him little to write about.
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For that reason, Driving Rain invites some curiosity. Losing his wife of 29 years, finding a new love, and engaging himself with the outside world to a degree he hadn't done since the '60s, McCartney has experienced more change in the last four years than in the previous 28 combined.
Except for "Magic," where he sits by Linda's deathbed and reminisces about their first meeting, Driving Rain doesn't explicitly deal with all these shakeups. He deals with them as he's always done, musically: in the walking bass line and soaring melody of "Lonely Road," in the XTC-shimmer of the chorus to "Tiny Bubble," in the grand, nervous balladry of "Your Loving Flame."
There are echoes of his past work here ("Lonely Road" recalls 1986's "Stranglehold," and the crooning "I Do" pinches chord changes from 1973's "Little Lamb Dragonfly"), but the overall feel is of a re-energized, newly focused Paulie. In simple, sometimes cliched, language he hints at what he's gone through: "Take your own advice, let me love again"; "I wouldn't wish it on a soul, much less on you"; "This is the hour that they turn out the light." Relying on a solid, four-piece band of L.A. session vets, and for once shying away from coating his 59-year-old throat in layers of backing vocals, he creates a sense of naked intimacy that's rarely made it to his records. And even the low points, like "Spinning on an Axis" (throwing his son a co-writer's bone) and "Riding Into Jaipur" (trying to out-Eastern George Harrison), indicate an attempt to cover new ground.
Rock critics who get off on ridiculing Macca's lyrics will find all the ammunition they need with the title song. Admittedly, "One two three four five/Let's go for a drive" won't make any poetry anthologies (unless it's one of Paulie's own), but try finding a poem with a hook as insinuating as this one.