"What the hell gives you the right/To tell me what to do with my life?" Paul McCartney screeches on Press to Play, his first album of new material since 1983's Pipes of Peace. The lines occur in a guitar burner called "Angry" and stand as the ex-Beatle's challenge to critics of his love songs, sweet melodies and generally sunny disposition. "Angry" taps the emotion that's most likely responsible for making Press to Play one of the sturdiest LPs of McCartney's post-Beatles career.
McCartney's easygoing exterior masks a deeply competitive streak — this is a man who can take being dismissed as a wimp only so long. The last time McCartney weighed in credibly was on 1982's Tug of War, an album fired by its central image of struggle, a reunion with Beatles producer George Martin and the need to address the artistic legacy left by the recently slain John Lennon. If Pipes of Peace marked a return to pap and 1984's Give My Regards to Broad Street represented a retreat into Beatles revisionism, Press to Play plants McCartney firmly in the present.
McCartney has always worked best with collaborators. The mates on Press to Play are Hugh Padgham, who coproduced the record with McCartney, and Eric Stewart, the ex-10cc stalwart, who co-wrote six of the LP's ten songs. Padgham, who has handled the board for the Police and Phil Collins, supplies Press to Play with an electronically dense contemporary sound that fleshes out McCartney's melodies and gives the LP rhythmic kick. Stewart pushes McCartney in some new directions, particularly on the dreamily abstract "Pretty Little Head" and the LP's grand Beatlesque finale, "However Absurd."
The album opens with a snareslamming rocker, "Stranglehold," whose cracking horns and peppy chorus announce that McCartney hasn't lost his upbeat touch. The catchy pop suite "Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun" finds the singer in his Abbey Road mode, reeling from an edgy evocation of the past into a characteristically optimistic vision of what it will take to see us through the future: "All the beauty, all the pain/Will it ever be the same again?/If you love me, show me now/It's the only way that we know how."
Even at their most rollicking, McCartney's rockers are reassuring, never threatening. The honky-tonk stomper "Move Over Busker," the cheery momentum of "Press" and the romping whimsy of "Talk More Talk" capture McCartney's engaging way with such material.
On "However Absurd," McCartney, with a joking glance at his perceived status in the rock world, sings, "Custom made dinosaurs/Too late now, for a change/Everything is under the sun/But nothing is for keeps." While these lyrics might suggest a comfortable fatalism — and a fondness for comfort has been McCartney's most damaging flaw — they also express his sense that life slips away and that joyful times, a bright outlook and the ability to accept goodness are traits that shouldn't be too cavalierly shunted aside. It's a worthy point of view, and it's epitomized on Press to Play. "Taking the sand inside an oyster, changing it into a pearl" is how he puts it on "Only Love Remains." Or, as he phrased it once before, "Take a sad song and make it better."