There is a sense that when a tremendously accomplished musician has guaranteed themselves a remarkable legacy, and a constant, obscene stream of income, that they should probably pack it in and never step foot in a studio again. New releases from legends like the Rolling Stones or the Who are received warmly, if not enthusiastically (unless you are Rolling Stone, who really ought to trademark the phrase “Their best in decades!”), because their fans know that the new albums are little more than an excuse to head out on a lavish, profitable tour. It’s a decent system: the bands mostly trot out the hits. The audience dutifully applauds when the band plays a newer song. Everyone wins.
But it’s not so easy for Sir Paul McCartney. There are no reunion tours for him, not even with Wings. He’s one of the two surviving Beatles, which carries an inherently unreasonable weight, especially when the other survivor is Ringo Starr. The safe route for McCartney is to churn out “Hey Jude” simulacrums and “Lady Madonna” knockoffs under his own name, but the man has maintained an admirable sense of experimentalism, as is evinced by the work he does under the Fireman moniker (with Martin Glover of Killing Joke, known here as Youth), and their latest album Electric Arguments.
Don’t be mistaken: Electric Arguments, despite some occasional signs of spark, is a big miss. The Fireman is McCartney and Youth’s vehicle of choice when he decides to dabble in electronica, or ambience, or basically anything outside of what you would typically expect from him, and let’s just say it doesn’t seem to come naturally to him. Worse still, the Fireman is where McCartney chooses to relegate some of his more embarrassingly mawkish lyrics. This is truly saying something when you consider that McCartney was never exactly known for his scathing writing. The words “love,” “lover,” and its various modifiers are sung far more often than a man in his sixties should be comfortable with.
Electric Arguments has its moments though. More specifically, Electric Arguments has one truly interesting moment, and it happens at the very outset of the album. Although “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight” is a surprisingly spry (an admittedly condescending term when referring to elderly people rocking out) and raucous blues-rock jam, it is almost a highlight by default, a brief glimmer of edginess that in no way prepares the listener for the wave of almost creepily optimistic anthemic rock and dull electronica coming its way.
Up until about halfway through the album, McCartney and Youth cannot seem to decide which direction the album’s going. “Two Magpies” and “Travelling Light” suggest gentle folk might win the day. Then there are songs like ‘Sing the Changes” and “Sun Is Shining,” which suggest that the Fireman is getting it’s inspiration from post-9/11 U2 (a somewhat crass divider, I’ll admit, but there is a definite distinction between pre-9/11 U2 and post-9/11 U2). It’s in these songs where McCartney displays his most cheerfully half-assed lyrics. Writing a line like, “In the city/ full of people/ see the buildings/ crowd together,” and delivering it between big meaningful pauses at the quietest point of “Sun Is Shining” so that the lyrics are impossible to ignore is ballsy in all the worst ways.
The final half of Electric Arguments is easier to tolerate, if for no other reason than McCartney and Youth finally settle on a direction. The album runs out with the clock with some amorphous and ethereal electronica songs with titles like “Is This Love,” and “Lovers In A Dream.” Even when some propulsive drums kick in halfway through “Universal Here, Everlasting Now,” Electric Arguments’ latter half remains mercifully easy to ignore.
A side note for anyone decides to give this album a full listen and isn’t enjoying what they’re hearing; don’t worry about your iTunes queue. The last song isn’t really ten minutes long.