For the past several years, Paul McCartney has been stuck in something of a no-win situation as far as releasing new records: first off, many people see fit to pit his more recent material against classic Macca such as “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Band on the Run” and/or bemoan the fact that his voice is now a bit worse for wear. These comparisons and complaints seem to be somewhat unfair; after all, how many 76-year-olds can do ANYTHING as well as they did when they were 25 or 30? Overstatements such as “He hasn’t released a decent record since [insert your favorite McCartney record here]” run rampant on social media every time a new McCartney release is announced. Some in this camp feels McCartney should give up recording and touring because he is somehow besmirching his substantial legacy.
On the other side of the fence are the McCartney apologists who feel he can do no wrong and that he’s bulletproof and beyond reproach simply because of his legendary status and because “he’s Paul McCartney.” These folks fawn over anything and everything that McCartney does, often going to ridiculous extremes while doing so. This in turn fans the flames of distaste from the other side.
As with most cases, the truth here probably falls somewhere in the middle. True, McCartney’s vocals no longer soar as they once did, and yes, he’s certainly released some less-than-stellar records since the turn of the decade (Driving Rain, anyone?). But to suggest he hasn’t released anything worthwhile since 1989, for example? Balderdash. (I could easily cherry pick a couple dozen superfine tracks from McCartney releases over the past 30 years.) And to those who think he’s above any sort of criticism simply because of who he is? Sorry, no.
Meanwhile Paul McCartney keeps on keeping on, seemingly impervious to the ongoing—and ultimately pointless—debates described above. Which brings us to his latest full-length, Egypt Station. Is it another Ram or Venus and Mars? No. Is it a dreadful, embarrassing addition to McCartney’s discography? Definitely not. Here’s what it is: it’s a solid, engaging record from an old pro who still has plenty to say and comes up with enough inventive ways to say it to make it well worth your time.
Beginning with a brief instrumental piece (“Opening Station”) that vaguely recalls the intro to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Egypt Station makes stops at some familiar McCartney locales: there’s heart-rending balladeering (the melancholic, piano-based “I Don’t Know” is quite beautiful—and one of his finest slow ones in many years—while the gentle, orchestrated “Hand in Hand” is typical Macca sweetness married to a memorable melody). There are finger-picked acoustic guitar-fueled ditties, a la “Blackbird” and “I Will” (“Happy with You,” which seems to detail McCartney’s easing into both newfound marital bliss and life as a doting grandfather), and there are a sack full of upbeat, almost annoyingly catchy tunes that ultimately say nothing but are damned fun to listen to. (The snappy rocker “Who Cares,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Ram or Red Rose Speedway, might just be the best thing here.) And there’s an earnest, semi-anthemic plea called “People Want Peace” that’s a damn sight better than McCartney’s strident, post-9/11 tune, “Freedom.” Another top choice is the sweeping, mid-tempo “Dominoes,” an adroit, inspired McCartney pop song as only he can (still) write ‘em.
But McCartney doesn’t just traverse familiar-sounding territory on Egypt Station: “Come on to Me” and the semi-naughty “Fuh You”—both previewed as “singles” from the album and in retrospect, not the wisest choices—sound like they could be current chart hits for any number of anonymous singers. Still, although they’re both relatively basic in structure, lyrically shallow and more groove than melody—think “Dance Tonight,” from Memory Almost Full—they lodge firmly in the brain after a listen or two. Dammit.
McCartney’s voice does sound a bit weathered on some of the ballads, but he seems to be embracing it and is able to use it to his advantage; for example, the way he intones “I used to feel bad” on “Happy with You” (drawing out the final word of the sentence) gives the line more resonance. (He uses a similar device at times on the stirring “Do it Now,” which features a lovely arrangement.) Still, nowhere does his voice sound as worn as it did on New’s “Early Days.”
The grinding, goofy “Caesar Rock” is another song of note, with McCartney trotting out the 2018 model of his “Monkberry Moon Delight” voice (still sounding pretty damned tough), while the entertaining, seven-minute medley “Despite Repeated Warnings” uses some nautical lyrical metaphors to detail what sounds like the current U.S. political situation (“Those who shout the loudest/might not be the smartest”). The album closes with another nifty medley, “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link,” which rocks quite righteously, particularly for a 76-year-old. To sum it up, Egypt Station stands as McCartney’s most consistent release since 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and the words he sings on “People Want Peace” ring true as sort of a current statement of purpose: “I’m not quitting while people are crying for more.” Right on, Paul.