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McCartney shows fabulous form in 'Chaos'

Paul McCartney

Chaos and Creation In the Backyard

(Capitol)

4 stars (Out of four)'

It's not exactly like Paul McCartney has been slumming it since the Beatles collapsed 35 years ago. Of all the former Fabs, McCartney has been the most prolific and, with a few exceptions, the most consistent as a solo artist.

Still, as well-crafted as McCartney's work has been since his peak solo years in the mid-'70s, there has always been the nagging feeling that something was missing. McCartney has a way with a melody, clearly, and even when he seemed to be coasting, his work stood above that of most of his contemporaries. But the attention to detail, the glorious production nuances, the beauty of the richly layered arrangements of his Beatles-era work -- those seemed to have gone largely missing.

"Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," released today, solves this problem. It's full of ornate melodic and harmonic detail, clever twists of plot, unexpected chord progressions and hip, timeless production tendencies. "Chaos" is the sound of the world's most famous rock musician challenging both himself and his audience, most of whom seem quite content to pay hundreds of dollars just to hear the man play the oldies. At 62, however, McCartney has seen fit to push forward with the seeming delight of a 20-year-old discovering music for the first time.

The catalyst for this change -- and it should be noted that it's a subtle change, since McCartney's two most recent albums, "Driving Rain" and "Flaming Pie," had moments that shimmered with the clarity of genius -- is Nigel Godrich, who makes his debut as McCartney's producer following groundbreaking work with Radiohead and Beck.

The story, already widely circulated and in danger of devolving into myth, goes something like this: Godrich started working with McCartney, decided that some of the material was weak, had no trouble telling his new boss as much and eventually convinced him to sideline his stellar touring band and play all of the instruments himself, a la much of the brilliant "McCartney," "Ram" and "McCartney II" albums. Macca swallowed his pride and got on with it.

We should all thank Godrich; his refusal to let McCartney slip into his comfort zone makes "Chaos" one of his finest solo albums.

The album begins with "Fine Line," a jubilant piece of sunny, piano-based pop, a tune that wouldn't have been out of place on "Flaming Pie," an easygoing collection of bright, catchy tunes. But listen deeper, and you hear plenty more going on here, from McCartney's layered acoustic and electric guitars and jaunty piano, to the Millenia Ensemble's airy string arrangement, conducted by Joby Talbot. It's crystalline chamber pop, but it's not shallow, throwaway stuff.

"How Kind of You" is an elegant ballad of gratitude, its lyrics abandoning artifice in favor of a direct expression of thanks.

Again, the richness of the arrangement is striking. McCartney handles guitars, bass, piano, drums, flugelhorn and guerrero here, and the tune's somber melodic construction seems to float atop the nuanced blend of instruments.

"Jenny Wren" is a gorgeous tune, akin to McCartney's "Blackbird"/"Mother Nature's Son"/"Calico Skies" style of finger-picked acoustic guitar composition. The chord changes and melody are ably suited to the singer's moving portrait of an unvanquished spirit and the hope for a day "when this broken world mends its foolish ways." Again, it's in the meeting of melody, composition and lyric that this sort of thing takes wing.

McCartney has long been accused of being a softie, a sap, a silly romantic. He is one, clearly. But his relative optimism has been balanced by an ability to view its inverse while still retaining some sort of hopefulness. It's a gift, and he delivers it tous as one, scoff as many might.

"Riding to Vanity Fair" is as dark as McCartney gets, over a brilliant pastiche of swelling strings, toy glockenspiel and electric piano, McCartney rids himself of someone whose ego prevented true friendship from flourishing. It's a striking lyric and helps balance some of its companions on the album, which delightfully fall into the silly love songs category. It's here that we see the Godrich/McCartney relationship flourish. The tune has the bummed-out beauty of Beck's "Sea Change" record, another Godrich production that made pain seem somehow inspiring.

"Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" is an incredibly strong record that demands of the listener some serious attention. It's in the details that much of McCartney's brilliance shines through, today as it did way back when he was Fab.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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