Chaos and Creation in the Backyard
he Beatles could go in two directions at once. They were capable of making big production records that were still “organic.” Beatle records are often very much about the presence of particular instrumental sounds: Rickenbacher guitar, Hofner bass, piano, sitar, mellotron, the French horn on “For No One,” the piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane,” and on and on. Paul McCartney’s solo work has suffered in part because people always had less of a sense of who the players were on his albums (Wings were always a fairly anonymous group) and what they were trying to do with their particular instruments. McCartney’s post-Wings, big production records like Tug of War were felt to be “glossy” as a result. Listeners can, in a sense, only gloss over all of the sounds.
McCartney’s early attempts to make “organic” albums—McCartney, Wings’ Wild Life, and McCartney II—were also infused by an “organic” songwriting approach, treating off-the-cuff, spontaneous compositions as surrealistic musical baubles. More recently, 1997’s Flaming Pie was a move toward organic record-making once again (note the very homey drawing of a pie on the cover, plus lots of pictures of flowers and leaves in the booklet), with Paul and collaborators Jeff Lynne and Steve Miller playing the majority of the instruments themselves. Paul then recorded Driving Rain with his current band of young American players in a sort of Wild Life style, noting every instrument played by each of the players on every song in the CD booklet.
Good as these last two albums were, they lack the definition of Beatle records. Working now with producer Nigel Godrich on the fantastic Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, everything seems to have suddenly become focused! Every part—and this is primarily a McCartney solo extravaganza with Paul on electric guitars, electric bass, acoustic guitars, drum kit, pianos (grand and upright), spinet, B3 organ, Moog synthesizer, harmonium, autoharp, flugelhorn, melodica, recorder, “vibrachimes,” tubular bells, toy glockenspiel, and various other percussion instruments—seems to have a real character and point.
The same is true of McCartney’s lyrics, which perhaps became more focused after the experience of writing the poems published in his Blackbird collection (notable on Driving Rain also). Never in his career has McCartney seemed more serious in tone and more aware of the play of his lyrics as poetry.
Most surprising, however, is the consistent compositional focus in the songwriting throughout Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Just as every instrumental part seems to have a real sense of aesthetic purpose, virtually every song here has a real sense of stylistic purpose. Twice, McCartney continues his revived enthusiasm for fifties rock and roll (following his 1999 rock and roll covers album Run Devil Run), hitting some spot on rockabilly blue notes on “Friends to Go” and banging out a kind of barrelhouse piano on “Promise to You Girl.” The much-noted “Jenny Wren” would appear to have been written with a real intent of getting at a sense of Beatles White Album style acoustic guitar balladry, while “English Tea” is a baroque pop tune with Beatle strings (though the tune itself actually sounds more like something from the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle!).
Even a less immediately striking song like “A Certain Softness,” with its lounge piano and acoustic guitars, has a real sense of character. The unique structure of “At the Mercy” suggests a sort of contemporary art song style that, at only two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, is not overindulged. Curiously, in fact, five of the thirteen songs on the album are under three minutes. McCartney, as a musical Surrealist, is delightfully willing here to let his songs be these charming little musical curios.
It is in his artistry as a songwriter that he accomplishes this throughout the album, in fact, with songs featuring such nice little moments as the E.L.O.-like vocal harmony sections in “Promise to You Girl” (including a seventies-connoting Moog synth part adding to the atmosphere the second time around) and the sudden programmatic torrent of chords (following the line “watch the universe explode”) in “At the Mercy.” “How Kind of You” features an extended, tense closing section that finally resolves into a gorgeous little codetta of new musical materials. “Follow Me” starts as an acoustic guitar ballad with a slight country lilt, but modulates to a different key two verses in and is suddenly a baroque pop song with strings.
The greatest bit of songwriting craftsmanship on the album, however, is in “Riding to Vanity Fair,” surely the most ominous and pointed thing McCartney has ever written. Two minutes and fourteen seconds into the track, a bridge occurs where, at the end, you finally get the song’s title line. After another verse, however, the bridge is back once again. When the title line (“Riding to Vanity Fair”) occurs again at the end, you realize that the section you’re hearing isn’t, in fact, the bridge after all; it’s actually the song’s chorus.
That’s masterful songwriting. What’s more, the song’s lyric is a stark bit of plain talk directed at a reprehensible second person “you” character. By unexpectedly repeating what seemed to be the bridge with a new text still directed at this character the second time around, it is as though McCartney is pressing the character, letting him know that he is not quite finished with him yet.
If there is perhaps one mistake on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, it is the sequencing of Paul’s1960s soul ballad “Anyway” last on the album, right after another ballad that’s also the album’s least musically striking track. But listen to “Anyway” for what it is anyway: a “People Get Ready”-style knockout. The way the last line of the chorus ends with that dead-on gospel melisma and then tacking that wordless falsetto line on to the end: that’s Beatle power.