“There is a fine line between chaos and creation if you don’t say which one it is you’re gonna do…”
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, released in September 2005, has a bit of both—but creation wins out, making it one of my 10 favorite Paul McCartney solo albums.
Chaos rebuts a recurring criticism that Paul’s solo work is disconnected from his emotions. It’s a surprisingly introspective album that marks the beginning of Paul’s late-career creative resurgence. Raw authenticity and vulnerability run through “How Kind of You,” “Too Much Rain,” “A Certain Softness,” “This Never Happened Before,” and the uncharacteristically bitter “Riding to Vanity Fair,” among others. Of course, these heavier songs are balanced with classic upbeat McCartney; “Fine Line,” “Friends to Go,” and “Promise to You Girl” are feel-good tracks with driving melodies and creative lyrics. Paul plays nearly every instrument on the album, and the double- and triple-tracked vocal harmonies are a highlight throughout.
The album feels organic and whole, expressing a wider range of emotions than McCartney had tackled in the past. It’s contemporary and innovative without straying from classic McCartney, and the unwavering quality throughout is likely due to the influence of producer Nigel Godrich, who was not afraid to let Paul know when a track was less than stellar. It’s a nice listen…the kind of album you can just put on from beginning to end and lose yourself in.
Highlights include (song names link to iTunes to preview):
- “Promise to you Girl“: The opening may make you think this is the most depressing track on the album, but keep listening. It makes a sudden 360-degree turn in tempo, lyrics, and sentiment, moving from morose contemplation to the youthful promise of fidelity to a girlfriend. The styles and lyrics don’t initially seem coherent, but repeated listens reveal how it comes together to tell a story: the songwriter flashes back to an earlier and happier time of life, using the hope and promise contained in the memory to combat a contemplative depression. Musically, each change works perfectly with the lyric sentiment, and the song contains so much classic McCartney musicality: note the Beatlesque slide guitar riffs, falsetto “ooohs,” and tight multi-part harmony reminiscent of “Because.” This is the highlight of the album—the most musically and lyrically interesting offering.
- “Friends to Go“: With a mid-tempo country feel with gorgeous harmonies (all overdubbed by Paul himself), this one sounds a little different from the typical McCartney track…and Paul had an interesting explanation as to why. Paul said, “I just got this feeling, this is George…I was like George—writing one of his songs. … It just wrote itself very easily because it wasn’t even me writing it.” He admits he’s not even sure what all the lyrics mean, and that some of them, especially those about “waiting on the other side,” could have an otherworldy connotation. But no matter how the song came to be, it’s a fun track that I tend to put on repeat whenever it shows up in my playlist.
- “Jenny Wren“: This acoustic track considered a modern-day companion to “Blackbird,” similar in melody, guitar style, and narrative. With the title likely taken from an especially tragic character in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, “Jenny Wren” is a sad story of a girl who lost her innocence and joy as her life progressed. But as this is Paul, the song ends on a more optimistic note (of course!).
- “English Tea“: Depending on your opinion of Paul’s “granny music,” this will either a favorite, or you will hate it with the intensity of a thousand suns (I fall into the former camp). Between the violin and recorder(!) solos and the lyric inviting listeners to teatime in the English countryside, “English Tea” exposes Paul’s “twee” side in all it’s glory and would be a fitting accompaniment to a binge-watching session of Downton Abbey. Two interesting facts about the song. First, it may be the first song to ever feature the archaic word “peradventure,” which simply means “perhaps.” It was also one of two songs Paul performed live in concert, along with “Good Day Sunshine,” to wake up the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis. Both of these facts are elaborated in the DVD The Space Within US, a documentary of the 2005 US tour.
Paul created a companion video, originally aired on PBS, called Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road. The special, broadcast from Abbey Road studios in front of a small audience, shows Paul discussing songs from Chaos, telling stories about the original Beatles recordings at Abbey Road, and noodling around with vintage instruments such as the mellotron that was used for the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Watch it below:
Bottom line: If you like Paul’s current songwriting style and increasing emotional depth, you’ll love this one. This is where that style began.