The Beatles' "anthology" projects clearly left Paul McCartney in a reflective frame of mind. Too often in the past, that would mean a douse in a nostalgia bath, but on Flaming Pie, McCartney's look back is a genuine search — as though he were uncertain about what he might find there. The confusion becomes him, complicating his typically all-too-settled point of view and lending Pie a needed edge.
The best example is "The World Tonight," a brooding track driven by a nasty electric guitar. "I don't care what you wanna be/I go back so far, I'm in front of me," the 55-year-old McCartney sings, as if he were stunned to find himself still standing in the wake of grunge, rap, techno and every other sonic assault on the world since the '60s. It's assertive without being defensive, aware without being trendy.
The title track is similarly winning. Over an easy-rocking boogie-woogie piano vamp, McCartney wails surreal non sequiturs, a writing style he excels at: "Tucked my shirt and unzipped my fly/Go ahead, have a vision/I'm the man on the flaming pie." The title derives from John Lennon's wry description of how the Beatles got their name: "A man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them: 'From this day on, you are Beatles, with an a.'" Having invoked Lennon, McCartney seems more willing to stretch.
Musically, the album is sparer than McCartney's recent efforts. Jeff Lynne and George Martin are sensitive collaborators in their coproductions with the singer; and guitarist Steve Miller displays muscle and finesse on four songs. Even Ringo Starr turns up on "Beautiful Night," a song he co-wrote.
Unfortunately, Flaming Pie is not all good news. "The Song We Were Singing" suffers from the self-congratulation of that most cliched of genres, the boomer reminiscence. And, against the troubling issues the album raises — aging, the meaning of the past, the instability of the future — McCartney tirelessly waves the magic wand of love. "Somedays" assures us that "inside each one of us is love"; "Young Boy" urges us to "find love, whatever you do"; and so on.
Still, Flaming Pie finds McCartney grappling with history, both personal and public, in intriguing ways. As a figure who has shaped the course of pop history, he knows that he could get away with doing less these days. But only at his peril.