Monday, November 24, 2014

Song of the Day: Paul McCartney - Jenny Wren (2005)

Do you ever feel absolutely positive that you read something once, but then all attempts to prove that something even exists fail and you question if you made it up? Well, I remember reading something Bill Simmons wrote about Greg Maddux several years ago, during one of Maddux's final seasons. This piece of writing does not seem to exist on the internet, because I just spent over an hour searching for it. But whatever, the memory is very clear to me. 

Anyway, Simmons was talking about watching Maddux in the twilight of his career, on the wrong side of 40, and seeing him make some amazing defensive play, initially being shocked at how good and effortless the defensive instincts of Maddux are, and then (and I'm paraphrasing here, because I cannot find the damn quote) "I caught myself and remembered, 'Oh yeah, it's Greg freaking Maddux! The greatest defensive pitcher of all-time!'"

I find myself thinking of that idea a lot, because I'm frequently in the position of watching creative geniuses do great things past the age when it's still expected of them, and I have to take a moment, step back, and remind myself that, 'Oh yeah, it's Greg-Freaking-Maddux, the greatest defensive pitcher of all-time! Of COURSE he can still do that!"

And I find myself thinking that about Paul McCartney probably more than anyone. 

Paul McCartney has had one of the strangest solo careers of anyone, ever. When The Beatles broke up in 1970, Paul immediately released his first solo album, which featured "Maybe I'm Amazed," one of the greatest songs he'd ever written. He followed that up the next year with the very good and underrated Ram. Then came two bad albums, then the mini-comeback Band on the Run in late '73, then nearly 25 years of shit. You would be hard-pressed to find any musical genius in history to ever have a two decade run of worse output than what Paul put out from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s. Sure, there are some good songs scattered around, but are you missing anything if you own none of it? Nope. 

Then Paul improbably turned it all around in '97 with his Flaming Pie album, and he's basically stayed at that level of quality since, reminding us over and over again for six albums and counting that he's still Paul Fucking McCartney, and he was a Fucking Beatle, and how dare we assume he'd lost his fastball?? 

There's nothing in this late run of good Paul albums--Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full, and last year's New--that reinvents the wheel, or changes music, or is even essential owning. But they're all in the good-to-very-good range, and that's saying a lot after the startling-in-its-consistency shite that Paul had been putting out for the previous quarter century. And these albums do change Paul's legacy. They forever remind us that Paul McCartney still deserved his middle name--the one that wouldn't let him f-f-f-fade away. 

Those six albums are littered with good songs, but "Jenny Wren," from 2005's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, is my favorite. Ignore, for just a minute, the trailblazing innovations of The Beatles, and try to focus in on precisely what Paul was so good at. The man just knew a damn melody. On any Beatles album, you could pick out the worst McCartney-penned song of the bunch, and it was still gorgeously hummable. It's why "Martha My Dear" has always been one of my favorite Beatles songs--it's a song no one ever thinks about, but it's so lovely and simple. That's what Paul's musical identity was at its very best, lovely and simple.

The cynic here might watch this video and point out that Paul's only rewriting "Blackbird," and that's precisely why we shouldn't care. But I feel the opposite. So many great artists spend their entire careers grappling with the same ideas and themes. Woody Allen has written and directed 40 movies, and they mostly feature the exact same three plots. We don't love him for his plots, we love him for the ongoing commentary he gives us on his ideas of love and life and how they change and evolve over time. That's what made Flaming Pie such a welcome revelation in McCartney's discography--it was the first time he started looking back on his best ideas and interacting with them again, instead of merely re-milking the same udders. It's a subtle difference; trying to live off the same ideas versus trying to see how they change and evolve if you actually let them breathe and unchain their inherent formulas. For 25 years, Paul was shackled to silly love songs, but then he started really looking at why his early love songs weren't that silly. 

I hope a lot of you are hearing this song for the first time. I hope you're initially shocked at how simple and elegant and lovely it is. And then I hope you catch yourself and think, "Oh yeah, it's Paul Fucking McCartney!"

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

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