Part of the Beatle’s charm lies in his vacillation between the banal and the profound, sometimes within a single song. Despite its dark moments, his 17th solo album is firmly within this tradition.
Facades are second nature to Paul McCartney. A superstar since age 21, McCartney perfected the art of affectation while the Beatles were still touring the globe, and decades of public controversies and tragedies have only hardened his shell.
McCartney’s gift of glib is so deeply ingrained in his persona that it’s disarming to hear him sing “I got crows at my windows/Dogs at my door/I don’t think I can take anymore” at the outset of Egypt Station, his 17th solo studio album. Paul’s candid admission of fear and depression would be startling in any context, but what stings most is the tacit acknowledgment that 76-year-old McCartney realizes he’s nearing the end of his long, winding road.
Nostalgia is catnip to McCartney—as it has been for all of his fellow Beatles, each of whom wrote songs about how great it was to be in the Beatles—but his fondness for the past is countered by a gnawing sense that he should participate in the current pop conversation. If anything has driven him throughout his career, it’s the idea that his next Top 10 hit is just around the corner. This certainty served him well back in the ’70s, when he slyly dusted the propulsive “Jet” in layers of glitter, and as late as the dawn of MTV, when he (with the assistance of George Martin could create a facsimile of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that sounded as if Quincy Jones produced it himself.
Paul’s golden touch tarnished as he settled into his 40s, leading him to collaborate with any star who would have him—which is to say, just about all of them. Yet hit singles remained elusive. In 1989, his Elvis Costello collaboration “My Brave Face” went to 25 on the Billboard charts, but it took another quarter-century for McCartney to break into the Top 10, with 2015’s “FourFiveSeconds.” Caught between 2013's splashy, Giles Martin-produced New and Egypt Station, the single is an outlier in every regard: A collaboration between McCartney, Rihanna, and Kanye West, it rode the younger artists’ coattails up the charts, not his. His very appearance on the track made him seem thirsty in a way that is unbecoming of a Beatle.
“Fuh You,” the second single from Egypt Station, trumps “FourFiveSeconds” by making McCartney seem full-on desperate—for either a hit or a fuck, but preferably both. Where “FourFiveSeconds” benefitted from minimalism, “Fuh You” is a maximalist jumble of modernist nonsense in which producer Ryan Tedder forces Paul to follow his playbook. McCartney admitted to Mojo that he was so irritated by Tedder’s method, he decided to rewrite the lyric “I'm a lover for you” as “I just wanna fuh you.” Perhaps that was a nifty way to twist the knife in the producer, but it also represents a bit of self-sabotage that is entirely in character for McCartney.
“I’ve got a career where I’ve been involved with songs that have meaning, and this doesn't amount to anything,” he apparently told Tedder. “Y'know—I wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby’!” Which is true! But McCartney also wrote “Bip Bop,” “Move Over Busker,” “Biker Like an Icon,” and many other flights of fancy that are either cute or irritating depending on your mood or tolerance for fluff. A large part of his charm lies in the way he vacillates between the banal and the profound, sometimes within the course of a single song.
Egypt Station is firmly within this tradition. “Fuh You” aside, the album is fairly handsome, if not quite restrained. Credit for its modulated modern sheen goes to Greg Kurstin, one producer behind Adele’s Grammy-winning 25, along with recent records by Sia, Beck, and Chvrches. Kurstin is a clever producer who knows how to spin retro sounds so they feel fresh, even if the record’s structure is classically McCartney. All of the Beatle’s signatures are here: the silly love songs, to be sure, but also mini-suites (“Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link”), polite political protests (“People Want Peace”), and old-fashioned rockers (“Who Cares”). These familiar constructions make the moments where Paul attempts something slightly new seem all the more apparent.
Such is the case with the moody “I Don’t Know,” which opens the album (after the brief instrumental intro “Opening Station”) with those foreboding images of crows, dogs, and rain. Though its bleakness is almost unprecedented in McCartney’s catalog, the song has companions throughout Egypt Station, like the wistful “Confidante” (another in the long line of songs that can be read as tributes to John Lennon and “Happy With You,” whose very title captures how Paul still feels compelled to pull his punches. At first, it appears as if he’s finally letting himself be seen unguarded, offering confessions of overindulgence and bad behavior. But, ultimately, all of these apparent regrets are justified by the redemptive power of love.
The album as a whole plays out in a similar fashion, offering peeks of an unvarnished McCartney before retreating to familiar territory. Once the initial shock of its melancholy moments—not to mention “Fuh You”—subsides, Egypt Station reveals itself to be another well-crafted collection of confections, reminiscent of nothing so much as McCartney’s oft-maligned 1986 release Press to Play, another burnished recording pitched between modern and retro, where Paul couldn’t resist indulging in shiny new sounds or dirty jokes.