The Other China: A Review of "Kosher Chinese," by Michael Levy
Lost in the Swamp: A Review of "Swamplandia!," by Karen Russell

Who Left the Artist in Control?

Mccart 1 "Blimey, he's Paul McCartney.  He can bloody well record whatever he wants.  He can record an album of screaming if he wants.  Oh, right, John Lennon did that.  Well, he's a Beatle for goodness sakes.  He can do whatever he wants"

I can well imagine having some such retort from a British cabbie or the like, hearing me complain about the self-indulgent dithering of Paul McCartney on his McCartney and McCartney II, both reissued this week in single, deluxe, and super-deluxe editions, a part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection.  I allowed my completest compulsion to take hold, buying both.  It was not a good use of money.

Both suffer from the self-indulgence allowed a superstar artist.  They clock in at under 35 minutes, not much music by any standard.  Both represent McCartney's complete and total control over the recording process, meaning he can issue half-baked, incomplete songs, songs with innocuous lyrics, and record his meandering pre-song experimentions.  (The bonus disc is more of the same.)  A good producer (George Martin?) and a record company (Capital) would have insisted on real songs --- crackling pop masterpieces, of which he is quite capable.  But, he's a Beatle.  He has enough money to be writer, singer, only instrumentalist, producer, and record company.  It's not nearly as ridiculous as John and Yoko's album of primal screaming, but both could have been much, much better.  There's just no one to hold him accountable, no one to say no.

Still, I would have bought McCartney, issued in 1970, for nostalgia alone as well as for the song, "Maybe I'm Amazed."  I first bought the album in vinyl when I was 14, a Beatles fanatic.  I took it home, put it on the turntable in my bedroom, and pored over the cover and photos.  Perhaps these "songs" which, if issued by a lesser artist, would likely never see the light of day, are so impressed in my memory because they are laden with all the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of those teenage years, the sounds part of the soundtrack of my life.  As such, I have completely lost any objectivity about the record.  The bits and pieces of songs that exist there live in my thoughts; I can summon them to mind anytime.  And the fact is they have an innocence that endears them, filled as there are with images of domesticity --- of a Beatle, his wife, and young children at home.  The six instrumentals are interspersed with eight songs, some little more than ditties, like the brief opener, "The Lovely Linda, or "That Would Be Something," a song which amounts to one thought: it'd be really something to meet you in the falling rain.  Profundity it lacks.  "Junk" is endearing, and yet it's difficult to say why.  Perhaps its the simplicity of its melody.  "Teddy Boy" is a "Rocky Raccoon" like acoustic number.  But the piano ballad, "Maybe I'm Amazed," is the only pop classic here.  Still, I would buy this album again, and again, and again, as it summons up a time we (I) can't get back again.

Mccart2 McCartney II, on the other hand, is mostly a lot of electronic experimentation.  There is "Coming Up," a radio hit from the record, but it's just not my style.  While "Waterfalls" is a nice ballad, the lyrics are cliche and trite, like "I need love/ like a second needs an hour/ like a raindrop needs a shower."  I'll probably never listen to the bonus disc again.  McCartney's excess is vividly demonstrated by the over 10 minute instrumental experimentation of "Secret Friend."  This, in other words, is a largely forgettable album that might have been rejected or reworked but for McCartney's star power.  Teh cover shot seems to say it all: "What have I done here?," Paul seems to be saying.

The lesson in all this is that artists do not need to be in complete control.  They need good producers to challenge them and ask them for their best.  They need record labels that insist on products that are well-made and marketable.  And they need a public that refuses to buy because of a name but insists on quality.  None of these checks on artistic divas is perfect.  Far from it.  The public is often fickle and will settle for too little.  Producers can apply a certain sound they are comfortable with to every artist, making them all sound the same (think Daniel Lanai or Charlie Peacock), and record companies can insist on the always safe and predictable, the same record over and over again.  But truly great records are born in the tension that exists in this community dedicated to the one thing they all profess to love: the music.

As for me, if there's a McCartney III, I'll think carefully before paying any hard cash for it.