In addition to copiloting the greatest bands in rock & roll history, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have something else in common: Both have watched their solo careers sputter. McCartney hasn’t placed an album or single at the top of the charts in nearly a decade, and only one album, an “unplugged” MTV concert, has broken the Top Twenty. Jagger waited until 1985 to test the solo waters and has thus far found them icy. His last album, Primitive Cool (1987), stalled at Number Forty-one, while its would-be anthem “Let’s Work” logged one lonely week at the tail end of the Top Forty.
No acts will ever rule the rock realm so completely for so long as the Beatles and the Stones. Times have changed; attention spans have shortened, owing to video overexposure (resulting in careers with the trajectory of a Roman candle), rigid radio formats, the corporate trivialization of rock’s mission and the sheer accumulated mass of music, old and new, being thrust at listeners. These days the sales go to the likes of Michael Bolton, Garth Brooks, Boyz II Men and Kris Kross, while living legends like McCartney, Jagger, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and arguably even Bruce Springsteen are consigned to an elder rockers’ Valhalla, where they bask in critical favor and do good tour business while watching their new work hobble and fall off the charts.
So why suffer the ignominy of being outsold by artists of far less luster? Why not stay home counting royalties and tending investments? For both Jagger and McCartney, pride and ego figure in, certainly; but there’s also the matter of creative viability. There’s plenty of ambition, not to mention craft, to be found on both Wandering Spirit and Off the Ground. McCartney, fresh from dabbling in light classical with his Liverpool Oratorio, imparts a mock-orchestral grandeur to his pop sensibility on Off the Ground. While occasionally slow-moving (McCartney could use a boot from an aggressive producer), Off the Ground contains some fine songs and sustains a guardedly optimistic mood that conveys a faith in the future. Jagger manages to paint in the primary hues of an inveterate rock animal on Wandering Spirit while decorating the margins with some left-field material that recalls the fervid eclecticism of the Between the Buttons-era Stones. If Wandering Spirit gets the nod over Off the Ground, it’s because Jagger sounds livelier and more welded to the present than McCartney.
The differences between the two can be illustrated by their lyrics. Whereas McCartney sings, “I feel love for you now” in “Winedark Open Sea,” Jagger growls, “I don’t ever wanna see your picture again” in “Don’t Tear Me Up.” McCartney is a family man whose idealism springs from his commitments; Jagger remains a realist and, true to the title, a wandering spirit whose blood runs hot. Wandering Spirit rises to a rousing boil, while Off the Ground maintains a mannerly simmer. They’re about as different as day and night, and as it was in the early days, when people were either Beatles fans or Stones fans, you’ll probably prefer one to the exclusion of the other.
Poking their heads above the manicured surface of McCartney’s song cycle are “Hope of Deliverance” and “Peace in the Neighbourhood.” The first is one of those perfect little tunes McCartney plucks from his songwriter’s subconscious like a pearl from a shell. Deceptively wispy, effortlessly catchy, it finds McCartney breezily proffering a positive attitude toward the days ahead: “When it will be right, I don’t know/What it will be like, I don’t know/We live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.” “Peace” is a cheerful, dreamlike vision of a halcyon world; its sunny, casually funky groove recalls odes to brotherhood by the likes of Sly and the Family Stone and War.
Elvis Costello rejoins McCartney as a songwriting collaborator on two numbers: “Mistress and Maid,” in which fanciful flourishes provide a Sgt. Pepper-style spin, and “The Lovers That Never Were,” a gorgeous, lushly arranged vocal showcase also taken at a swaying waltz tempo. McCartney falters when he tries to rock out on “Looking for Changes,” a literal-minded animal-rights broadside, and “Biker Like an Icon,” a quixotic character study. At this juncture, he doesn’t seem able to rock with authority, and he under-mines his effort by applying a sugary glaze, such as the inappropriately tame chorus to “Biker Like an Icon.” A clutch of longish songs — “Winedark Open Sea,” “C’mon People,” “I Owe It All to You,” “Golden Earth Girl” — seems calculated to cast an ambient stargazing spell, and McCartney closes the album with an Aquarian Age reminder to remain “cosmically conscious.” While the sentiments are commendable and the music pleasurable, Off the Ground is a tad undercooked — a souffle that doesn’t quite rise to the grand heights its creator envisioned.
Jagger, on the other hand, rocks with a willful, desperate abandon on Wandering Spirit, the most purposeful and assured of his three solo discs. With Rick Rubin coproducing, the album has a live, knife edge feel to it, from Jagger’s counting off the bristling opening cut, “Wired All Night,” on through to the reckless declaration of independence of the title track. While Wandering Spirit possesses a rock-solid backbone that will please Stones fans, Jagger adroitly tosses a few curves — a pure-country foray, some hard-hitting urban funk, a courtly overlay of harpsichord and Mellotron — to keep things interesting. And though not everything works — particularly problematic are “Handsome Molly,” a dire foray into Celtic folk, and a starchy retread of Bill Withers’s “Use Me” — Jagger communicates both laser-focused directness and far ranging versatility.
Jagger, who will turn fifty this year, seems determined to cede nothing to age, dismissing the idea of mellowing out as anathema: “I’m as hard as a brick/I hope I never go limp,” he rages from the center of the cyclonic fury of “Wired All Night.” His brashness and swagger are well intact on numbers like “Put Me in the Trash” and the doggedly relentless cover of James Brown’s “Think.” The first single, “Sweet Thing,” finds him applying a “Fool to Cry” falsetto to a danceable, “Miss You”-style track. On “Out of Focus,” a churchy piano-vocal intro segues into reggae-accented gospel-funk as Jagger deals squarely with a harsh comeuppance that tempts with autobiographical overtones: “Maybe I lied a little bit too much…. I saw the future just shatter like glass.” “Don’t Tear Me Up” is another sadder-but-wiser reflection bolstered by echoes of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The title song spells out his rootless dilemma with forcible resolve: “Yes, I am a restless soul/There’s no place that I can call my home,” he sings as the band ensnares him in a tight jump blues.
But Jagger isn’t content to let matters rest there. From this defiant perch he reveals the cracks in a vulnerable façade with three remarkable songs near the album’s end. “My cards are on the table/You can get up and walk away/Or stay,” he importunes in the country-flavored ballad “Hang On to Me Tonight.” Tart Memphis-soul guitar and a solid backbeat buoy Jagger’s bittersweet plaint in “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long.” “Angel in My Heart” closes this trilogy with a heartbreaking plea — “Stay with me till night turns to day/Let me in your dreams” — set to an exquisite melody reminiscent of “Lady Jane.” Wandering Spirit, then, illuminates the varied aspects of a complex personality. But best of all, it rocks like a bitch.