In his post-Beatles albums, Paul McCartney has proven himself a clever miniaturist whose records resemble collages built around simple musical fragments, each of which is painstakingly produced. While some have dismissed McCartney’s music as insufferably cute, uninspired trivia, all of his albums contain at least some worthwhile music.
The solo John Lennon explored (often brilliantly) the sociopolitical potential of late Sixties rock mythology, cultivating a cult of personality to become the most critically popular ex-Beatle. Paul McCartney became the most commercially successful of the four lads by developing into a bravura producer/arranger (especially of singles) as well as a genteel pop archivist devoted to fusing his contribution to the Beatles legacy with mainstream pop. For latter-day McCartney, the megaphone, the brass band and the seedy English music hall tradition are parts of the same musical equation as rock & roll: pop and pop only.
Venus and Mars, the last Wings album, was a collection of miniature pop love songs, deliberately tricked out with kiddie sci-fi and comic love lyrics. It was whimsical romantic entertainment concocted on the premise that a lot of good pop music carries no literary or mythical portent whatever. But within its frivolous schema, McCartney systematically explored the textural dimensions of conventional pop music sounds.
At the Speed of Sound doggedly continues in the same vein, but with much less effervescence. Where Venus and Mars was framed by the astrological motif, At the Speed of Sound ostensibly invites the listener to spend a day with McCartney and Wings—a day in which the listener is gently harangued as well as entertained.
“Let ‘Em In” begins with door-knocking sound effects, out of which steps a marching band. Like most of the rest, “Let ‘Em In” puts a simple musical theme through carefully arranged changes. The melodic idea is small, but quintessentially McCartneyesque in its provincial jollity.
With the electronic soup-slurping sounds that open side two, one notes that it is almost time for lunch on this imaginary visiting day. But first the McCartneys answer those critics who lashed out at Venus and Mars‘s lovebird verses with a tract in defense of moon, June and spoon, “Silly Love Songs.” It’s a clever retort whose point is well taken; the center of the song focuses on the syllables “I love you,” which Paul and Linda reiterate with the insistence of phonetics instructors, weaving the phrase through a disarmingly lovely three-part chorus. Homeyness then climaxes with Linda singing “Cook of the House,” complete with sizzling pan and running water. A surrealist concept like side one’s first-rate “The Note You Never Wrote,” “Cook” is a rockabilly nursery rhyme. Though the instrumentation is excellent, the song fails because of Linda’s colorless, amateurish singing. (Those with feminist sympathies will also detest this celebration of scatterbrained wife-in-kitchen coziness.)
If “Silly Love Songs” is acceptably didactic, the album’s closing number, “Warm and Beautiful,” pushes the point too far. The opening chords suggest a parody of Lennon’s infinitely superior “Imagine” and the ultrasimple melody and lyrics suggest a parody of Lennon’s “Love,” serving up, with apparent sincerity, the stalest pop ballad clichés ever to emerge from an English music hall. Perhaps McCartney is trying to remind us that these tiresome clichés might well outlast the pop music many critics call art. Or perhaps it is an attempt to transcend cliché by being the biggest cliché. Or perhaps “Warm and Beautiful” is simply one of the worst songs Paul McCartney has ever written.
While there is much to admire on At the Speed of Sound, it is contained in the production more than the material. Ultimately, this album lacks the melodic sparkle of Venus and Mars, which in its turn lacked the energy, passion and structural breadth and unity of Band on the Run, Wings’ finest album. No one rocker on Speed matches the spirit of “Jet” or “Band on the Run” from Band, while no ballad even begins to approach the majesty of “My Love,” from Red Rose Speedway. As a whole, At the Speed of Sound seems like a mysterious, somewhat defensive oddity by a great pop producer who used to be a great pop writer. Like all McCartney and Wings records, At the Speed of Sound is spectacularly well arranged and recorded, with McCartney continuing to demonstrate his special affinity for using brass in surprising and witty ways. The playing is laboratory perfect. McCartney, like almost no one else, seems able to play the studio as an instrument. Though it’s a wonderful gift, I hope it doesn’t distract him from songwriting more than it already has. For the best McCartney songs will most certainly outlast all the studios in which they were recorded.