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Review: Paul McCartney, ‘Kisses on the Bottom’

Paul McCartney
SPIN Rating: 3 of 10
Release Date: February 07, 2012
Label: Hear Music

Who the fuck is Paul McCartney?” That was the gist, more or less, of a series of tweets — some ironic, many apparently genuine — sent during this year’s Grammy Awards. Many were hapless teenagers who’d tuned in to see Rihanna and instead were greeted by a kindly-looking old waiter crooning balefully over somber strings. The tweets were ultimately aggregated and turned into a meme. As jokes go, it’s an extremely cheap one, but it inadvertently raised a decent point: In 2012, in a music world lit by lightning, when bands more than five years old are considered legacy artists and “classic rock” means Nirvana more often than it means Jimi Hendrix, who the fuck is Paul McCartney?

Kisses on the Bottom, Sir Paul’s 16th solo album since he left That Band He Was In back in 1970, could be read as an answer. McCartney has said that the record is meant, in part, as a tribute to the standards he heard his father playing on the piano in their Liverpool flat while he was growing up. So think of it, then, as a kind of prequel. Like most prequels, it aims to show the our hero’s evolution, presenting us with factors that were instrumental in shaping his character as we know it. Also, like most prequels, it isn’t very good. Too rote, too reverent, too mawkish, Kisses gets its only hint of impishness from its deliberately saucy title.

Speaking of which: That title isn’t nearly as cheeky — literally or figuratively — when you hear it in context, which happens near the beginning of the album-opening cover of Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a song about a hopeless romantic who pens a heartfelt note full of flowery platitudes with himself as the primary audience. Better metaphors cannot be bought. After that, Sir Paul twirls his cane and doffs his bowler through 13 exceedingly polite supper club numbers full of winking piano and dapper brush snare and stand-up bass that guffaw like McCartney’s telling a bad joke. If you’ve always wanted to live inside a Frasier episode, this is the album for you.

McCartney recorded at Capitol Studios, the same place where Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole more ably tackled much of the same material. He’s backed on most of the record by Diana Krall and her band, who provide equal amounts of silence and sound. A violin flits around like an animated bluebird as McCartney whistles his way through “Paper Moon,” piano tumbles across McCartney’s rounded vowels like a circus clown over a seal on “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Postive” and Sir Paul aimlessly fiddles with “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” like someone idly whittling away at a tree branch. Eric Clapton shows up to provide an acoustic guitar part that is — you guessed it! — tasteful, and Stevie Wonder blows a lonesome harmonica halfway through the maudlin, string-drenched “Only In Our Hearts.”

Kisses may be devoted to the Traditional Love Song, but it’s full of sentiment not emotion. Sir Paul moons, orchestration is larded on like too much vanilla frosting, and a lachrymose take on “More I Cannot Wish You” (from Guys & Dolls), may as be as the default father-daughter dance in every wedding package for the next 20 years. In terms of emotional depth, the first verse of “Jenny Wren” from McCartney’s 2005, Nigel Godrich-produced Chaos & Creation trumps the this album’s entirety.

Beatles fans like to set its primary powers against one another: The Intellectual Rebel vs. The Cute One; The Communist vs. The Populist; The Walrus vs. Rocky Raccoon. The most exhausting thing about the Cult of John is how binary its belief system can be. It thrives on the unspoken implication that John never had moments of hapless sentimentality or that Paul was never especially adventurous — a fact that any given 35 seconds of Ram handily disproves. In fact, Paul did plenty of experimenting, flirting with new wave, chomping a carrot in the background of a Super Furry Animals song, and making an underrated record with a member of Killing Joke as recently as 2008.

One of the things that makes Kisses so frustrating is that it seems to be trying to prove the Lennonites right. It’s telling that the best song by miles is the McCartney original, “My Valentine,” a stark, nuanced ballad of enduring love that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of the first few Scott Walker records. It opens with an expression of doubt (“What if it rained?”) and moves, gradually and elegantly, to a feeling of assurance and strength. Surrounded by so much hokum, it feels like cinema verite.

But isn’t this going a bit hard on the old boy? The album, after all, is a trifle, and if you’re not paying especially close attention — and most of Kisses feels designed for that eventuation — it’s so light and harmless and well-intentioned that it seems downright callow to raise too big a fuss. But its flimsiness is precisely the problem. What’s so dismaying about Kisses is that it forces us to realize that McCartney, one of our finest songwriters, can’t deliver an “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” anymore, or even a “Temporary Secretary.”

Maybe we should be grateful that he’s not doing his version of Jagger’s Superheavy or Santana’s Supernatural. Or maybe we should just give him credit that he’s lasted this long. But the fact remains: After 55 years in the business, with a career marked by such minor accomplishments as helping to invent popular music, Sir Paul McCartney has made an utterly forgettable, featherweight record designed primarily to appeal to Sir Paul McCartney. Certainly, he’s earned the right. But what did we do to deserve it?