For a lot of us, Paul was always the easiest Beatle to hate. Ringo was silly and harmless. George was never much of a threat either. And John, well, he was the man. He had edge. He had angst. He had blood and guts and grit and an apartment in NYC. He’d married one of those Fluxus artists, and hadn’t Greil Marcus drawn some connection between Fluxus and punk? Plus, John was dead. And it’s kind of hard to hate the dead guy.
Meanwhile, Paul was the soft, smiling stoner who’d married into so much Eastman-Kodak money that he didn’t even have to count his own Beatle billions. He wrote the silly little love songs, tended his English garden, and, despite all cryptic rumors to the contrary, was still alive to represent the part of the Beatles tied into the bloated rock establishment that punk rock had come to destroy, or at least circumvent with a vengeance. It was no accident that on their first album, British class-of-’77 punks Generation X railed against the Beatles (and the Stones, and the Who) in "Your Generation" before going on to cover the John Lennon tune "Gimme Some Truth." John was sorta punk; Paul, in no uncertain terms, wasn’t.
McCartney never went out of his way to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the punk generation. He did collaborate on one album in the ’80s with Elvis Costello, but that was back when Elvis was doing duets with Daryl Hall and just generally alienating a lot of old fans (we’d jokingly refer to his 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World as Goodbye Cruel Audience). The ’90s, however, were very good to Paul McCartney in the realm of underground music — thanks to growing legions of indie-rockers who rediscovered (or discovered for the first time) the beauty of the pop craftsmanship of the Brian Wilson Beach Boys and the Paul McCartney silly-little-love-song side of the Beatles, "Yesterday" and all. Bands like Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and the rest of the Elephant 6 collective rewrote the history of underground pop to include Paul McCartney as a hero, and his distinctively melodic bass style started popping up on dozens of four-tracked songs even as vintage Hofner basses (the kind he played in the Beatles) came into vogue. Plus, when Linda died you had to feel for the guy.
All of which has made the timing of McCartney’s new Driving Rain (Capitol), his first studio album in four years, particularly auspicious. And he seemed to have the right idea when he set out to record the disc earlier this year. Rather than rounding up a crass menagerie of young guns to bring star power to the project, or hiring a modern-rock producer to inject some hip and a little hop into the mix, Paul took a simple approach. And though it may be overstating the case to call Driving Rain one of those back-to-basics albums, in many ways it is a return — an apparently conscious one — to the way the Beatles did it back in the day. Paul’s back to playing his beloved Hofner, and though he contributes on a couple of other instruments (piano and acoustic guitar), he positions himself as the bassist/vocalist in a foursome that’s rounded out by guitarist Rusty Anderson, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., and keyboardist Gabe Dixon. And rather than spending months and months and millions and millions futzing around with studio gear and endless overdubs, he got the disc made, mixed, and mastered in a matter of weeks. It’s almost as if he felt compelled to get these songs out there quickly.
That sense of urgency plus a certain bittersweet joy surfaces throughout Driving Rain, which will surely rank as one of the more essential and artistically successful of McCartney’s solo discs. It’s a landmark in that it’s his musical reaction both to the loss of Linda and to the new love he’s found at this late point in his life — in other words, it’s an album of silly little love songs that aren’t that silly. Producer David Kahne (who’s worked with everyone from Sugar Ray to Tony Bennett) doesn’t go out of his way to create a retro vibe (i.e., he didn’t bring in the original board Sgt. Pepper was mixed on) — in fact, there are some subtle programming touches, including an electronic drum loop or two. But there’s no denying the warm, resonant, comfortably worn feel of the songs, or the well-seasoned mixes and artful arrangements, with every bridge in its proper place, or the refreshing looseness of the playing. In other words, it’s very Beatlesque, and that hasn’t always been as easy for Paul to achieve as it should have been.