Travel has always been good for Paul McCartney. While the rest of us return home from vacation with photos, sunburns, and maybe some duty-free bounty, he comes back bearing ideas that alter the course of pop culture. This is why he’s Paul McCartney and we’re not.
“I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there,” he gleefully sang in 1966. Today those words are a guide to some of his best work. For one of rock’s great autodidacts, the physical act of adventuring mirrors a mind constantly on the move, piqued by the new, the different, the unexpected and the fun. Over the years, transit has inspired him to explore a broad range of new musical terrain. An incognito trek to Kenya (by way of France) in November 1966 led him to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the generation-defining album that saw the Beatles’ assume new identities, freeing them from all preconceived mopped-topped notions. Nearly a decade later, a difficult sojourn to Lagos produced Band on the Run, Wings’ greatest creative triumph of the ‘70s. From a houseboat in the Caribbean (1978’s London Town) to a medieval castle in the English countryside (1979’s Back to the Egg), he’s made music outside of his comfort zone both literally and figuratively, and the results are always fascinating. When McCartney hits the road, good things are bound to happen.
Travel has always provided for McCartney, and he pays tribute to its liberating and rejuvenating effects on his latest album, Egypt Station, taking listeners along for the ride through a spectacularly diverse soundscape. Each of the album’s 16 tracks brims with 76-year-old McCartney’s undiminished — and seemingly boundless — energy and trademark gift for melody. Helmed by producer Greg Kurstin (late of Adele and Foo Fighters) and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder (who co-wrote/produced the song “Fuh You”), it’s McCartney’s most ambitious work in years. Loosely a concept album, the collection is bookended by “Opening Station” and “Station II,” a pair of atmospheric, almost ambient instrumentals that kick off the journey in cinematic style. “Egypt Station starts off at the station on the first song and then each song is like a different station,” McCartney explains in a statement. “So it gave us some idea to base all the songs around that. I think of it as a dream location that the music emanates from.” Rather than rigidly adhere to the concept, which would smack of gimmickry, he lets his emotional authenticity lead the way. Instead, the framework sets listeners up to see the world the way he does: as a big adventure.
Whether intentional or not, the first three tracks pass through three of his more familiar — and very different — musical regions before venturing further afield. “I Don’t Know,” the first full-length song, is a soulful piano ballad that marks an uncharacteristically gentle, pensive and even vulnerable start to the album. “I got crows at my window, dogs at my door / I don’t think I can take anymore / What am I doing wrong? I don’t know,” he sings in a weary croon, before offering a reassuring, “It’s alright, sleep tight.” Next up is “Come on to Me,” the first of several full-throated and often bawdy (note: “Fuh You” does not sound like “For You”…) stompers to crop up on Egypt Station. More than 60 years after teaching himself how to “do a Little Richard,” there are still few who can shout like McCartney in flight. “Happy with You” welcomes Paul the Acoustic Troubadour™, offering a sweet song of love to a woman who has pushed him to grow.
Three songs, three very different moods. It’s worth noting that McCartney handles a host of instrumental duties on Egypt Station, ranging from the usual bass, piano and guitars (both acoustic and electric) to the occasional drums, bongos, triangle, harmonica, harmonium, synthesizer, tape loops, harpsichord, congas, hand claps, foot stomps and “ankle bells.” In case McCartney’s reputation as a Renaissance Man is not cemented in your brain, the cover art is one of his original paintings from 1988.
Things get looser and wilder as the album progresses, revealing some of McCartney’s most experimental work since his freewheeling Fireman project with the producer Youth. “Back In Brazil” pairs a bossa nova groove with electro circuitry, producing a sort of 21st century “Girl from Ipanema.” The unclassifiable “Caesar Rock” blends salsa rhythms with Middle Eastern modes and Revolver-era studio trickery in a way that makes it look easy until you try to divine how he possibly arrived there. “Do It Now” finds McCartney returning to the string-laden baroque ‘n’ roll elegance he’s mined so successfully, with backing harmonies that would make Brian Wilson envious.
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“People Want Peace” is about as close as McCartney comes to an overt protest song on Egypt Station, though it’s a catchy and likable one — espousing the universal truth that people want “a simple release from their suffering.” But a major album highlight is “Despite Repeated Warnings,” a 7-minute anti-Trump mini-suite that couches politics in metaphor and an emphatic “Yes, we can do it! Yeah, we can do it now” refrain. McCartney’s reputation as an optimist, the vanguard of ’60s hippie ideals, has been something of an albatross around his neck at points of his career, but in a post-Trump/Brexit world, it’s come back around to being the highest compliment. Like most journeys, including Egypt Station, this one is cyclical. We find ourselves where we came in. Everything that’s old is new again.
Egypt Station is a tour through the imagination of one of our greatest artists — what’s not to love? It’s a celebration of all the things that make McCartney great: hope, exuberance, open-mindedness and sweet melody. These days, we need ’em more than ever.