Once they got the knack of songwriting (right around "Please Please Me"), John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn't really need each other for nose-to-nose collaboration. Lennon looked to McCartney for musical embellishment (the waltz-time organ intro for "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds"; a crucial chord change for "In My Life"), while McCartney relied on Lennon for editing. McCartney's need was particularly acute, because, for all his prodigious talent, his ability to tell a masterpiece from a cloying throwaway was always a bit faulty.
Nigel Godrich, producer of McCartney's new Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, probably isn't the first person since Lennon to tell this songwriter he has no clothes, but he might be the first one Macca listened to. McCartney's admitted desire to impress Godrich gave him a standard to work to, a vital ingredient for a songwriter who's always done his best work when pushed by some external force.
Chaos isn't a radical departure for McCartney, and many who stopped listening to what the man said years ago will mistake its quiet moodiness for the aimless whimsy of his worst work. But there's a renewed dedication to structural complexity here, a refusal to stretch a hooky fragment to five minutes, as McCartney has done too often in his solo career. In fact, with some of this album's most arresting songs, such as "At the Mercy," "Riding to Vanity Fair," and "How Kind of You," you'd have trouble identifying a standard verse, chorus, or bridge. Even the more traditional ballad "This Never Happened Before" possesses an elegance that's nearly Bacharachian.
One of the most rewarding aspects to Chaos is that it offers the best-ever showcase for McCartney The One-Man-Band, a niche he all but invented with 1970's understated McCartney. But both that album and its disastrous, belated sequel, 1980's McCartney II, were home-made and shoddily recorded. Chaos demonstrates the full scope of McCartney's virtuosity, and with hit singles and multi-platinum sales no longer a consideration, it suggests that his sixties could be liberating in a way that his thirties and forties never were. •