As if it were some cruel, ironic joke, my orders of Paul McCartney’s new album New and Yoko Ono’s new album Take Me to the Land of Hell were delivered to my house in the same box. Both artists are permanently linked – the overwhelming, looming shadow of the Beatles obscures both their work, which is a shame because Paul McCartney has proven that he’s still one of the most reliable and efficient pop tunesmiths ever; and Ono’s work is some of the most challenging, novel, and interesting pop music in the last three decades. And as both their new albums show, neither one is slowing down.
Paul McCartney’s reputation has a songwriter has taken some hits, because of his association with John Lennon – which is a shame, because he’s too often dismissed as a lyrical goof, more interested in soppy lines or facile rhymes. But it’s a mistake to discount McCartney’s ability – with New, he’s crafted some very engaging music – gloriously fun and poppy. He also sounds invigorated and excited – this is possibly due to the rest he’s had recording pop music (his last studio release was the 2010 jazz/standards collection Kisses on the Bottom). On New, he seems to be making up for lost time and has put together a kicky collection of songs. The album’s opener “Save Us” is a driving number with jangling and fuzzy guitars, and an anthemic performance from McCartney. The tune, produced by Paul Epworth (Adele), shows that despite his status as a rock elder statesman, Sir Paul can let loose and tear out a frantic performance. Epworth also produced the beautiful “Queenie Eye” that boasts his trademark bouncing beat and wall-to-wall sound – the synthesizers, guitars, drums all are crowded in this 3-minute song that recalls Britpop at its best.
But Epworth isn’t the only young hipster hired to add some gloss to McCartney’s sound – Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse) also is on hand to produce three songs (two on his own, and a track with Giles Martin). Ronson’s background in electronica, hip-hop, and rap may seem like an ill-fit to a former Beatle, but Ronson doesn’t try to recast McCartney as a rapper or dub star; instead, like Epworth, he provides a shiny and spiky soundscape to support McCartney’s killer hooks. There are subtle hints of swirling electronica in “Alligator.” The title track shows that Ronson has an affinity for the Beatles’ sound, by creating a sympathetic, nostalgic swinging number that recalls McCartney’s work with John Lennon – a foot stomper with some bombast, and it’s insanely catchy. And despite his age-weathered and thinned voice, McCartney seems to respond well to the buzzy, production that fondly looks back at the 1960s.
Longtime Beatle producer, George Martin, doesn’t have a hand in New, but his presence is felt by his son Giles, who produces the bulk of the album (about half). Martin is able to put together songs that sound comfortably next to the alternative-pop confections that Ronson and Epworth have produced; “On My Way to Work” is a pretty number, with yearning lyrics and a comfortable, swinging back, and a killer guitar solo in the middle of the song. “Everybody Out There,” like “New,” sounds like early Paul McCartney with its sturdy melody and hook, but Martin maintains its contemporary edge with some interesting drum and guitar work, vocal production, as well as, a swagger that is required for contemporary British pop music. “Looking at Her” is a gorgeous, gentle pop song, with some understated, fuzzy synths.
As great as McCartney sounds in the hi-fi production, the best song is the achingly beautiful “Early Days.” Relying on acoustic sounds that dominate the song, McCartney’s voice is lovely – the lyrics make up an elegy to time past, and it shows that McCartney and a guitar is enough to make some incredible pop music.
Whenever a rock legend is paired with a group of youngsters, the danger of making the veteran sound ridiculous always looms – but in New‘s case, McCartney seems to feed of the energy of his producers and in turn, hasn’t sounded this excited about making music in over a decade. Instead of being awed by his overpowering legend, what the producers instead treat him as a vital and hungry recording artist – and eschew entombing him in a musical coffin. Icons are great, but they rarely have as much fun as McCartney does with New.
And speaking of icons – Yoko Ono is probably the most polarizing icon in pop music – to some she’s a rock goddess, who predicted and ushered in much of the post-punk alternative music in the late 1970s, early 1980s. To her followers, she’s an avant-garde heroine who ignores rules of traditional pop music to make art; to her detractors, she’s a hollow, untalented hack, who is forcing her music on the public solely because she’s John Lennon’s widow. For years, she was also blamed for the Beatles’ breakup, and she’s had to endure lots of sexist and racist jabs.
I align myself with Ono’s fans. Admittedly, she’s an acquired taste – her thin, strange voice cannot hold notes for much too long, and her phrasing is often strange and off-putting, but her work is challenging – and often bracing and beautiful. At her best, when she’s not too bogged down in pretension, she is able to write some gorgeous, haunting, and most importantly – humane songs. Her jagged vocal stylings, tics, mannerisms, and sound effects also force her listeners to examine confining and traditional rules of pop music.
Her latest, Take Me to the Land of Hell, like McCartney’s newest, has Ono working with a motley crew of youngsters – indie-hipsters who often revere Ono (in fact a few years back, a group of indie artists collaborated on a tribute album). On Ono’s new release, she’s invited guest artists like ?uestlove, tUnE-yArDs, Mike D and Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, Cornelius, and Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda. Ono’s son, Sean Lennon is a producer.
All of this makes Take Me to the Land of Hell an interesting listening experience. It’s important that Ono surrounds herself with assertive songwriters and producers to rein in some of her excesses – some are present here – the highly theoretical and symbolic poetry, the indulgence in naive political posturing, self-consciously strange sounds – but over all, this is an excellent release that shows that even though she’s 80, Ono is still a thriving and frightening force to be dealt with.
The opening track, “Moonbeams” starts off innocently enough: jungle sounds, before Ono starts to recite some poetry over a thoughtful little guitar tuning, before a computerized dance beat secretly appears, about to take Ono and her listeners to a NYC dance club, before turning into a rave, rock number, with Ono’s trademark wordless vocalizing. The guitar work and drum work is excellent, and harken back to gritty, yet polished glam rock. “Cheshire Cat Cry” sounds like an indie rendition of Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover.” It’s a funky, slow number with a choppy guitar, and some of Ono’s most appealing singing. “Bad Dancer” is a great dance song that boasts a schoolyard chant and a humorous and gregarious Ono singing over the minimal beats and popping synths. “7th Floor” is another excellent party jammer – it’s no mistake that some of Ono’s most popular and artistically engaging music is her dance work – “7th Floor” like Ono’s classic “Dancing on Thin Ice” is an eccentric club number with some ridiculously tight drum work.
Not all of Take Me to the Land of Hell works – when Ono tries her hand at balladeering, her vocal limitations show – both “There’s No Goodbye Between Us” and “N.Y. Noodle Town” are well-written songs, but suffer at Ono’s wavering, unsteady performances (they are dying to be covered by more assured vocalists like Neko Case or Cat Power). The title track and “Watching the Dawn” are both moving numbers with an incredible violin solo and mournful string section, but again, Ono’s vocalizing doesn’t sit comfortably in the slower tempo that requires she stretches her notes – which she struggles with. It’s a shame because the lyrics are some of the most beautiful that Ono has written, and the gorgeous orchestra feels like a wasted opportunity (“Watching the Dawn” in particular has a killer piano solo).
Still, Ono at her worst is still miles ahead of most pop stars at their best – because even when she’s failing, she’s failing doing something brave and distinct. Will Take Me to the Land of Hell bring new fans to Ono? Probably not. Her style is still so individualistic and bizarre that she can be alienating – and the genre leaps on the album can also feel a bit jarring – not only is she singing over dance, indie, rock, and pop, but she even does a little music hall ditty (“I’m Leaving You Tim) that moves along a silly piano. But once listeners shrug off expectations of what pop music means, then Take Me to the Land of Hell is a rewarding listening experience.