In his 18th post-Beatle solo album, Egypt Station, Paul McCartney is in potent form.
Bob Dylan’s August shows in New Zealand split the audience between those bemused that he seemed to hide behind his piano while growling through his back catalogue and those who believe that Mr Zimmerman has simply chosen to emerge into the 21st century as a creaky lounge-bar crooner, hell-bent on reinventing the music of his folk-troubadour, country-rock, gospel-freak and political activist alter egos.
When some superstars change, it’s welcomed: take Johnny Cash’s 90s resurrection courtesy of American Recordings or the constant ebb and flow of David Bowie’s styles and characters. And when some superstars remain chained to their past, it’s equally lauded: where would we be without Jagger and Richards still belting out Brown Sugar and Satisfaction well into their 70s?
All of which creates a quandary for the last artistically viable Beatle. Feed the consuming passions of baby boomers who still flick lovingly through their Fab Four vinyl collections and have a sneaking admiration for Band on the Run, or show the world that he’s still capable of the type of left turn that created Magical Mystery Tour and – lest we forget – The Frog Chorus?
First, though, let’s get one thing clear about Egypt Station – it’s billed as a concept album. The concept is that each song is a stop on a railway line – a subject as suitably vague as my A-level English decision to study books and plays about “man in his environment”.
And just as I managed to claim Hamlet, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Martin Amis’ Money all fit under the same thematic umbrella, so McCartney is able to genre-hop between the chugging piano pop of People Want Peace, acoustic strummer Confidante, the jazz oddities of Back in Brazil and Caesar Rock, the epic dinosaur rock of Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link, and singalong rock-outs such as Come On to Me and for it to still somehow feel intentionally connected.
Come On to Me is the point on Egypt Station at which all McCartney’s pasts converge into present relevance – the lad who wanted to hold your hand in 1964 may now be 76, but he’s still got lead in his pencil and the brassy horn groove through the middle has all the hallmarks of Live and Let Die’s session musicians let loose on Ian Dury’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
The whole effect of Egypt Station (bar the three-minute chart-friendly misstep Fuh You) is of a polished rock’n’roll party furnished with familiarly honest lyrics and the sort of pop composition twists that have been his post-Beatles stock-in-trade. And in this respect, it doesn’t scare the horses – there’s certainly no repeat of 2015’s FourFiveSeconds in which he loaned his superstardom to a Rihanna-Kanye West single.
When McCartney performed at Mt Smart last summer, he played FourFiveSeconds, but what lasts longer in the memory was his stunning version of Blackbird, and his challenge that anyone who thinks they can play it on the guitar is probably not doing it properly.
Because only Macca really does Macca properly. Yes, he prods around in new directions, but on Egypt Station it’s his familiar flourishes that appeal most.
EGYPT STATION, Paul McCartney (Capitol)
This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.