Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Getting Better All the Time

Paul McCartney has had a pretty good 2010. His Beatles catalogue was finally made available on iTunes; his post-Beatles discography is being remastered and re-released; he was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by President Obama; he was honored alongside Oprah Winfrey and other artists by the Kennedy Center; even a street he once walked on in his bare feet is now a landmark protected by the British government. Money can't buy McCartney love, but in 2010, he had love (and money) to spare.

The problem with all these accolades is that they're almost entirely retrospective. Meanwhile, Paul is regularly putting out new music. Of course, among his more recent releases is the album Memory Almost Full, which includes songs like "Ever-Present Past" and "At the End of the End," a song about his death. I fear that Paul feels his best years are behind him; I worry that he thinks back to "When I [was] Sixty-Four" and decided it was, for all intents and purposes, "The End."

That doesn't need to be the case. I think what Paul needs, to reinvigorate his own creative process and reassert his reputation as a living artist, is some creative collaboration.

Paul is known as much for his collaborations as for his personal creative genius. The overwhelming majority of Beatles songs, whether he wrote them in total solitude or had nothing whatsoever to do with them, are a shared songwriting credit with John Lennon. His post-Beatles work was marked by the upfront participation of his wife Linda and the distinctive contribution of ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine. He charted hits with Stevie Wonder and king of pop Michael Jackson. It's difficult, actually, to think of Paul McCartney in isolation; he's at his best when he's working with someone.

But since the mid-1980s Paul has, more or less, as a commercial artist, been keeping to himself. And since the mid-1980s, he's been thought of as an artifact of the past moreso than an artist of the present. So I would like to propose that Paul get back in the collaboration business.

He's not totally given up on collaboration, for the record. He's put out three albums with the techno-artist Youth (Martin Glover) as "The Fireman." But Fireman music isn't radio-friendly, and I want, for Paul and for the rest of us, more McCartney on the radio. So may I humbly suggest the following artists as a sort of to-do-be-do-be-do list for Sir Paul in his forthcoming creative renaissance.

Ben Folds. Ben Folds is the sort of angry genius that nicely offsets Sir Paul's cheery genius. Ben writes great melodies, crafts brilliant harmonies and comes up with startlingly honest lyrics. So does Paul. And the energy! Ben Folds tops my list.

Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy fronts Wilco, he has a respect for music history and a good track record of working with music and artists from earlier eras, as evidenced by his partnerships with Billy Bragg on the Woody Guthrie catalogue and his recent work with Mavis Staples. Speaking of whom . . .

Mavis Staples. In many ways the moral conscience of the late 1960s music scene, she once turned down a proposal of marriage from Bob Dylan, telling him to get religion. And he did!

John Legend. Legend meets legend, come on now.

They Might Be Giants and/or Justin Roberts. The biggest names in "kindie rock" would allow Paul to explore his silly, still-youthful side. Also, I went to high school with Justin, and that would bring me one degree closer to the Beatles.

Alicia Keys. She's a soulful genius, as is Paul at his best. I don't believe Paul has collaborated with a woman to date (besides Linda, at least), but Alicia Keys would be a good start.

Win Butler. The singer-songwriter for Arcade Fire is so hot right now, and he knows how to craft a highly textured song, something Paul mastered with tracks such as "Live and Let Die." Imagine the possibilities!

Elvis Costello. Elvis produced Paul's great Flowers in the Dirt album, which I believe Paul called his most energizing collaboration since John Lennon. It's time for a reunion.

Willie Nelson. A genius and legend in his own right, Willie Nelson has some experience with collaborative projects, having helmed the supergroup The Highwaymen and sung with Elvis Costello, among others. And speaking of country . . .

Alison Krauss. Alison Krauss is younger than I am but is already a legend in country and bluegrass music. She collaborated with Led Zeppelin alumnus Robert Plant to great effect. Gorgeous melodies and harmonies, what could go wrong? And speaking of bluegrass . . .

Chris Thile. The mandolin player from Nickel Creek went Beatlesque in his collaboration with Switchfoot lead Jon Foreman for their Fiction Family project; bluegrass (or, as a friend of mine called it, "new-grass") would be relatively unexplored territory for Paul, which is hard to imagine, but it's true.

Jon Foreman. See above. And Switchfoot is anthemic in ways that early Wings were anthemic. Time to rock again, Sir Paul.

Sean Lennon. All I am saying is give it a chance.

Sam Phillips. She recorded John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth." She released the enormously Beatlesque (and enormously awesome) Martinis and Bikinis. She's one of my all-time favorites. Do me this favor, Paul! And speaking of favors . . .

Neil Finn. Lead singer of Crowded House, in my opinion he is the best singer/songwriter of my era, having picked up lyrically and musically where the Beatles left off. He's written a song that everyone can sing along to, "Don't Dream It's Over," and several others that people would do well to learn; singing along to songs like his makes the world more awesome. Paul's written several such songs--imagine trying to decide whether to close your concert with "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be"--and he deserves the company of someone who knows what that's like.

Anyway, that's what I wish for when I think of Paul McCartney. Anyone I've overlooked?

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