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©MPL Communications Ltd. / Paul McCartney
© MPL Communications Ltd. / Paul McCartney
Fight Club: Paul McCartney

Dueling scribes square off over a rock legend who's gone from heartthrob to knighthood

By Mark Brown and Michael Shilling
Special to MSN Music

Two frequent MSN Music contributors ponder Macca's latest project in this installment of our ongoing series of critical debates.

Paul McCartney's new album, "Kisses on the Bottom," released on Feb. 7 -- but what kind of sound did it make when it hit the ground? Is the album of mostly standards from Sir Paul's childhood a loving tribute to song craftsmanship or his most self-indulgent move since "Give My Regards to Broad Street"? Furthermore, what does it say about the state of his creativity these days? We try to get to the bottom of "Bottom."

Michael Shilling: I always feel bad going after Sir Paul, because he's a genius. Was a genius, I mean. So when does past genius become irrelevant to present mediocrity? In Macca's case, probably a long time ago, like sometime between "Pipes of Peace" and "Press to Play." But still, this new record of Valentine's Day-esque love songs ... why, dude, why? If I had just woken up or was about to go to sleep and heard the record, I'd think it was Sting's latest. Or Elvis Costello's. You get the point: There's utterly no sense of McCartney on it. Yeah, he sounds fine for a guy who's gracefully sliding into the septuagenarian, but what's the purpose of covering "It's Only a Paper Moon" like you're singing it at your grandson's confirmation? What's the need for another syrup-drenched version of "The Glory of Love"? What's the point of doing a bit of cheek like "My Very Good Friend the Milkman" with the solemnity of a church hymn? Cover albums should be interpretations, but this record just trod on very old ground.

Mark Brown: I'm not going to lie: Defending "Kisses on the Bottom" is impossible, from the album title to the dreary love-letter tracks. I understand the impulse. He's in love, he's happy, he wants the world to know it. But record it for your new wife, give it to her as a gift, and leave it at that. Save for this misstep, however, Sir Paul's track record in the past few years has been impeccable. The shows are better than ever, with deep tracks like "I've Just Seen a Face," "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" and even "Come and Get It" (wow!) peppering the set of usual classics. His shows rival Springsteen for length, depth and pure pleasure. But his songwriting is also strong, approaching genius. "That Was Me" from 2007 was a cheeky career review that was not only fun, but reminded you "Oh yeah, he did do all that, didn't he?" In 2008, I ignored his latest experimental "Electric Arguments" (McCartney's project with producer Youth, the Fireman), then had to go back and buy it after hearing the sublime "Sing the Changes" in concert. Like Dylan, there can be dry spells and long lulls -- but he's not done, not by a long shot.

More: McCartney's Big Grammy Night

Michael Shilling: Cheeky. That's an interesting word. Like, at nearly 70, what's the point of cheeky? My problem with the music that you mention is not that it's particularly terrible. Some of it has nice melodies, a sweet turn of phrase, a pleasing sense of retrospection. My issues go back to pretty much the 1970s, and the magical disappearance of the brilliant guy who was instrumental in changing the pop world. So maybe we should go deeper, instead of splitting hairs on whether or not "Nod Your Head" is the worst single of the 2000s, and try to figure out where Paul went. With few exceptions, every time I hear Sir Paul sing I think, "Where the rest of me?" and "There's no there there." I've never seen such a musical hiding-in-plain-sight as Macca. I don't buy the whole "John and Paul's competition kept them brilliant" frame, because it insults both of them. No one who writes "In My Life" or "Maybe I'm Amazed" did so because of peer pressure. He was the charming Beatle ... now he's the vacant ex-Beatle. I'm asking questions instead of making declarations because it's such a mystery, and no occasional pop gem can obscure it.

Mark Brown: Cheeky beats cranky in my book (I'm looking at you, Lou Reed). If anything, yes men diminished McCartney's '80s creativity the same way they killed Michael Jackson. The cliché is true, however: Many say his best work came when he had collaborators to push him (John Lennon, Elvis Costello and more recently Nigel Godrich, who started McCartney's post-millennium rebirth with "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard"). Last time I interviewed Paul, I asked him, "Is the cliché true? Do you need to be pushed?" And he simply agreed that, yes, it certainly helped.

More: McCartney relieved the Beatles never reunited

Michael Shilling: Yes, of course artists need other artists they respect to push them on, but therein lies the mystery of Sir Paul. Someone as brilliant as him may do better work with worthy collaborators, especially when those collaborators are at the top of their game like "The Girl Is Mine," which pretty much rides on M.J. in his prime. Still, it doesn't add up that his work would fall off so completely when it's just him and his crack team of session monsters. It's like he retreats into one version or another of "Silly Love Songs." He can still bring it live, which further compounds the mystery. Still, tell me how you would pitch McCartney's last studio record to the young 'uns. What would you say to demonstrate his sense of relevance? Because if he's a nostalgia act, he's failed.

Mark Brown: The song I mentioned, "That Was Me," was on his last studio album and is the perfect mix of nostalgia, bravado and relevance. He lists his career highlights and throws down the challenge in the chorus: "Yeah, that was me -- the same me who stands here now." To me, that's as much bravado as anything Eminem or Kanye are throwing down, and McCartney can back up the boast. There are plenty of jukebox nostalgia acts trotting out the old hits; McCartney keeps plugging, keeps writing and occasionally blasts one into the bleachers. And if the nostalgia he has to fall back on ranges from "Eleanor Rigby" to "Junior's Farm" to the inevitable "Hey Jude" encore, that's a pretty cushy landing.

Michael Shilling: Yeah, that's a good one for sure and reminds me, however slightly, of his brilliance, wit and craft. Which makes "Kisses on the Bottom" that much more an inexcusable bit of dumbing down. Funny: Though it might just be the similar rhythm, "That Was Me" seems like the bright analogue to John's bitter draught about stardom and self-involvement, "Serve Yourself." Ah, the Lennon-McCartney dialectic knows no end!

Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for The Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN's Reverb blog.

Michael Shilling is a recovering rock musician and the author of "Rock Bottom," a novel. He lives in Seattle, where he is a teacher, writer and editor.

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