John Lennon famously disdained Paul McCartney’s music hall tendencies as “nice little folk songs for the grannies to dig”. But the Beatles’ appeal owed as much to solid roots in Tin Pan Alley tunemanship as rock bite and experimentalism, lessons in classic song structure embedded in them from their parent’s generation.
For his 35th post-Beatles album (counting Wings, classical, soundtrack and electronic works), McCartney pays homage to songs he first heard his father play on the family piano. The mood is of warm and cosy nostalgia, laced with the qualities of magic and emotion familiar from McCartney’s own works of whimsy. He loves this material, and it shows.
The apparently risqué title is cheekily lifted from the opening track, the Fats Waller classic I’m Going To Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, rolled out as a loose, light jazz flight with a rippling piano solo from Diana Krall. Surrounding himself with a band of stellar jazz players, for the first time in his career the multi-instrumentalist opts only for the role of vocalist.
We rarely think of McCartney as a singer, because he is obviously so much more. The focus on interpretation exposes the ageing in his voice as it thins out in his high register but he performs with delicacy and nuance: understated, acoustic-flavoured arrangements allow him the space to sing with soft precision. The lower register of Irving Berlin’s Always suits him, and he delivers this dedication to a long-awaited love with the smoky conviction of a besotted and bedazzled old roué. When he sighs “my heart is forever yearning,” on Home (When Shadows Fall) it is impossible not to believe him.
For all the playfulness of songs like the gently swinging Its Only A Paper Moon, McCartney never tips over towards archness or pastiche.
The greatest compliment you can pay McCartney’s two originals is that it is impossible to pick them out as contemporary songs amongst the standards.
Only Our Hearts may be unremarkable but for a trademark Stevie Wonder harmonica solo but My Valentine has the ring of a classic, with a gorgeous descending cadence and perfectly pitched romantic sentiment, gilded with a light fingered acoustic solo from Eric Clapton.
Unlike Rod Stewart and other ageing pop idols who have refashioned themselves as retro-crooners, McCartney has no imperative to build a new career covering old songs and the album is all the better for it. It sounds like a romantic gift to his new wife and a sentimental salute to his own childhood – a minor gem from a major talent. I suspect grannies won’t be alone in cherishing it.Last Updated: 01/27/12 07:57