Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ Is Ambitious, Awkward and Awesome

The most iconic artists inevitably find themselves playing a dangerous game. When you’ve soundtracked millions of lives, and literally changed the course of history, any later artistic forays are typically met with a particularly contemptuous strain of skepticism. True artists, who genuinely enjoy what they do, could hardly care less what you think of their work. They continue to create art for the love of it, and if it’s not your cup of tea, you’re more than welcome to stick with their older work. It’s safe to say Paul McCartney’s prolific solo output has been somewhat patchy, with some underwhelming releases and WTF moments along the way. Still, you’ve got to admire him for keeping at it. He’s showing no signs of slowing down, having just released yet another album, “Egypt Station,” an ambitious recording with some hits and some misses and, as always, some very fine songwriting. While McCartney continues to shuttle between musical styles, this album finds him occasionally excavating sounds that we haven’t heard from him since the Beatles years. There are certain moments that capture the same magical spirit that made the Beatles all that they are in the first place, giving fans much to enjoy.

The later Beatles releases, from the white album onward, are those most vividly recaptured on this record. You can hear it in the first full song, “I Don’t Know,” and it continues to resurface throughout the recording. Songs like this one come across as a bit tepid and lackluster, as the piano-heavy instrumentation fences it in a narrow “classic rock” compartment without sounding quite “classic” enough to stand on its own. “Come On to Me” continues to play up the nostalgic angle, but is very much in the vein of the “Let It Be” back-to-rock Beatles phase, at which stage the band was arguably already too fixated on the past. Several of the new songs sound as if recorded for a follow-up to “Let It Be” a few years later. “Who Cares” is that old type of rock ‘n’ roll, by the book. The high-fidelity recording can be a bit unsettling, as it’s difficult to decouple these sounds from the imperfections that came along with them in earlier days.

Single “Fuh You” is truly something else a pop song written specifically for 2018, sounding as if someone objectively analyzed all the current trends, and tried to cover all bases to guarantee a hit. We all know that genres and production styles come in and out of fashion, but a lot of people don’t realize the extent to which vocal melodies follow trends. There has been a gradual simplification of melody in recent decades, reducing the substance of the typical pop hit to the most basic, rehashed, childlike singalong fare. “Fuh You” takes up this style, and totally nails it. Whatever you think of it, the song demonstrates McCartney’s ability to keep his finger on the pulse of popular music, and craft a song to fit any style — except it doesn’t because McCartney teamed up, for this track, with songwriter Ryan Tedder, who pens hits for the likes of  Beyoncé, Maroon 5, and Taylor Swift. Upon discovering this, you might find your bubble starting to burst. The fact that Paul McCartney, a legendary songwriter of the highest ranks, found himself compelled to join forces with this guy in order to reach for a hit with this gaudy, generic song is enough to make the most optimistic devotees grow disaffected. The world is over. Perhaps McCartney should call it quits after all.

“People Want Peace” sounds like a Lennon song — bed protests and all. Lennon was always the real hippie of the group, and McCartney was the grounded, accessible fresh face. This distinction made its way into the sound too, as McCartney was the more conventional singer, while Lennon bellowed away in his natural, nasal voice. The social consciousness fare usually came in Lennon’s voice, which packaged them with a certain rawness and edge. A song like this coming from McCartney, by comparison, just sounds a bit silly. McCartney brought songs like “Yesterday” when The Beatles had been otherwise churning out the standard good-time rock ‘n’ roll music of the times. It’s no surprise that the softer numbers of the new album are some of the most compelling bits. “Happy With You” is a lovely song, a more rustic number with “Blackbird’-style intricate guitar work, a sound that is timeless enough to free it from any of the garish era-specificity that limits other tracks. “Hand In Hand,” a tender, reflective piece, exemplifies the special charm that McCartney brought to The Beatles, and still fleshes into songs with such ease.

On the other hand, many don’t realize how much of the Beatles’ bold experimentation came from McCartney. In the “Rubber Soul” days, McCartney was living a very London life with his then girlfriend Jane Asher, who introduced him to the avant-garde world, while Lennon was spending most nights just taking drugs and watching television. Songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” were the contribution of McCartney, as were songs like “Helter Skelter.” We can hear echoes of this in “Caesar Rock,” which finds McCartney bellowing in reverb, evoking protest music of the ‘60s, and trying out a whole new voice, reminding us of the vocal versatility that he usually, modestly keeps at bay.

It was McCartney who ventured into the ambitious prog rock stylings of the late ‘60s, with songs like “I Want You.” This propensity for epic, elaborate arrangements certainly makes its way into “Egypt Station.” Many of the songs are tempo-shifting, multi-part creations in the tradition of “A Day In the Life” or even Wings’ “Band On the Run.” “Back In Brazil” is on the stranger side, with its loungy Latin-tinged jazzy stylings coming across as unintentionally camp. Still, the quirk and whimsy of the song is so incredibly Paul McCartney that it will surely paint wide smiles on fans’ faces. “Despite Repeated Warnings” is another song in the tradition of “Live and Let Die,” with its bona fide, larger-than-life epicness seeming downright cartoonish in a very lovable way. “Hunt You Down / Naked / C-Link,” another massive, lofty, theatrical medley, ends the album in the grandest way possible, certainly ending on a high note.      

Overall, “Egypt Station” is very much whatever you make of it. There are songs that sound stale and uninspired, and there’s the monstrosity of “Fuh You.” On the other hand, the amount of restless creativity throughout the album is truly awe-inspiring. Moreover, McCartney’s impact on popular music is so indelibly imprinted that his natural creative instincts are often inextricably linked with our natural receptive tendencies. Because of this, anything McCartney touches has a special quality to it, a rare emotional resonance, and it’s a source of great joy that he is still steadily turning out music with so much vigor and passion.

Egypt Station” is available Sept. 7 on Apple Music.