Usually when a long-running artist says they’re returning to making albums the way they used to, their nostalgic listenership rejoices. With Paul McCartney, that’s not necessarily the case. So when Sir Paul announced the release a new concept album called Egypt Station back in June and said “it reminded me the ‘album’ albums we used to make,’” you could be forgiven for feeling simultaneously nervous and excited. Optimists might picture a cohesive game-changer like Band on the Run, while pessimists might conjure up fears one Wings’ less-celebrated concept records like the plodding, exhausted Back to the Egg.
Well, the album is here, and after sitting with it for several listens, it’s probably fair to say Egypt Station is closer to maligned Wings albums like Wings at the Speed Sound or Egg. And oddly enough, that’s precisely what makes this a resounding success — and easily his best LP since 2005’s Chaos and Creation In the Backyard.
While the aforementioned Wings’ LPs were hindered by half-baked ideas and distracted execution, this has all the conceptual excitement and stylistic eclecticism those albums, but with the razor-sharp, workman-like focus McCartney’s last quarter century. If 1970s McCartney was a prolific but unfocused talent, McCartney in his seventies is a more methodical, disciplined artist in the studio. With Egypt Station, the ramshackle setup a Wings album is there, but the execution is closer to the rigor he displayed in the Beatles.
The concept behind Egypt Station is readily digestible: each song is a different train station stop on the trip that constitutes the full album. With that in mind, you could easily imagine each song fixating on one particular sound or subject before the train pulls out the station and Macca waves goodbye. But Sir Paul has never been content to stick to one genre (or even one song) within the constraints a single album track, and the majority these tracks are a mishmash whatever genres and instruments strike the former Beatle’s fancy.
Most veterans would be content to leave a song like the genteel-yet-randy "Come On to Me" as a stomping rocker, but Paul – like a master chef who can't help but sprinkle in a few random ingredients that weren't on the recipe when no one is looking – throws in a blues harmonica, electric sitar and an overly dramatic horn section that punches your ears with "Live and Let Die" urgency for added kick. (Speaking bedroom-minded Macca, he keeps insisting "Fuh You" — with the lyric "I just want it / Fuh you" — is a G-rated affair even though it sounds much more like he's singing "I just wanna fuh you." This truly is the classic rock take on Britney's "If U Seek Amy" the world needs.) Similarly, while another songwriter might create the world music-flavored adult contemporary vibe "Back In Brazil" and call it a day, McCartney tosses in some 8-bit bleeps and bloops (s/o his pioneering McCartney II album) as well as lilting Philip Glass-esque woodwinds.
But the true standouts on Egypt Station are reserved for the last few stops. As with McCartney's restless '70s output, the best items here are the omnibus tracks. "Despite Repeated Warnings" is a majestic, melodramatic mini-epic that builds from a gentle lament to a rebellious rallying cry punctuated by soulful horns and urgent strings. It's not hard to read the lyrics – a maritime tale about a ship whose future is endangered by a loud-mouthed, short-sighted captain who refuses to heed all warning signs because he's "got his own agenda" – as a Trump dig. And it's an achievement sorts that a president could be embarrassing enough to get the most diplomatic all the Beatles to write digs like "Those who shout the loudest / Will not always be the smartest" and "Grab the keys and lock him up."
The other is the album-closing medley "Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link." "Hunt You Down" is a deliciously swaggery '70s rocker with hella cowbell, clanging boogie woogie piano, layered harmonies and a noise that sounds like a laser gun being blasted f in a Super Nintendo game. That segues into "Naked," a cheekily existential sketch a pop tune that finds Macca in a rare sour mood ("Life's a bastard but I have no other"). While "Naked" has the last lyrical word on the album, the instrumental "C-Link" closes out Egypt Station with some stately blues-rock noodling from a player confident enough not to bother with mind-bending acrobatics; to compare it to one McCartney's favorite guitarists, it's closer to Jimi Hendrix on the hot-n-sweaty "Red House" than the frantic Hendrix "Manic Depression."
Much like the concept behind Egypt Station, that song's name, "C-Link," is a conscious callback to Macca's Wings LPs, which included instrumental "link" tracks ("Cuff Link" on London Town and "Bip Bop Link" on Wild Life) as a means stitching together disparate songs. But here, the link doesn't quite live up to its name – it's the final song on the album, not linking anything per se. The fact that the album gently peters out with a hazy blues tune sounds confusing on paper, but when you listen to "C-Link" lazily whisk you away from your musical Macca odyssey, it somehow works.
That, truly, is emblematic McCartney's gift. His enchanting affability and left-field stylistic diversions keep you engrossed, and on Egypt Station, that mixture ramshackle charm and studio workmanship has given us his best album in years.