I must have been preoccupied in 2004 and 2005 – something to do with three kids under the age of eight I suppose – because aside from Rufus Wainwright’s Want Two, I can’t recall any new album that I purchased during that timeframe. Flash forward thirteen years or so and I’m filling in a few gaps, and I’ve found two gems from the mid 2000s that I missed the first time around: Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and William Shatner’s (yes, that William Shatner) Has Been. Both are fantastic, and dare I say, McCartney’s album from 2004 may be among his top five albums of his entire post-Beatles career.
McCartney is one of those artists who I want to like more than I actually do, and therefore often overrate an album in retrospect. People often refer to his 1989 release Flowers in the Dirt as a great ablum, but listen to it again sometime and you may conclude that it’s a pretty good album. Sure, he makes a bold statement with Elvis Costello’s co-written opening track, and the album chugs along nicely for a while, but it falls off the rails completely by the end (and track two – “Rough Ride” – blows). But when compared it to his prior efforts, Press to Play and Pipes of Peace, its high marks are exaggerated.
Chaos is something different. With the help of producer Nigel Godric and a supporting cast of musicians mostly named Paul McCartney, the former Beatle recorded what is undoubtedly his best in the past twenty-five years and probably his best since Back to the Egg. (I had previously considered Tug of War great but realized that I conveniently overlooked ”Dress me up as a Robber” and “Ebony and Ivory.”) Unlike so many McCartney albums, there isn’t one track on Chaos that leads me to reach for the “next track” button, and many of the songs are downright stellar.
McCartney proves he can still deliver a deftly-crafted pop song in “A Fine Line” and can make a gentle nod to his Beatles past with tracks like “Jenny Wren” and “English Tea,” but for me the standouts are songs that offer an unexpected darker side. My favorite albums moments are:
- The 2:05 mark of “How Kind of You” as the drums and electric guitar kick in. The tune is lyrically hopeful but juxtaposed nicely against a rather melancholy harmonic progression that’s only enhanced by the drone of a harmonium.
- The opening of “At the Mercy,” a particularly complex song both melodically and harmonically, deliciously dark by McCartney’s standards with a universal lyric.
- The entire track of “Riding to Vanity Fair.” This gets my vote for the best song on the album, a gem that lifts the veil from Paul’s sunny disposition and wades in the waters of resentment.
While listening to this album for the first time I had assumed that it was about his breakup with Heather Mills, but alas, they didn’t divorce until 2008. Still, Chaos exudes uneasiness, reminding me of Ben Folds’s Songs for Silverman in that it may have captured the beginning of a downfall that didn't come to fruition until a few years later.
All in all, Chaos is a beautifully rich and complex album. I’ve listened to it more in the past six months than any other album I own.
And now to William Shatner. When I saw him perform “Common People” on The Tonight Show with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson, both of whom are among my favorite musicians, the song peeked my interest back in 2004. And then I awoke the next morning to get the kids ready for school and forgot all about it.
Fast forward eleven years later, when – in an effort to prove to my friend Kevin that 1995 was in fact a terrific year for rock music and not its nadir – I purchased the album Different Class by the band Pulp, and the fantastic third track “Common People” suddenly reminded me of the Shatner performance. I finally took the plunge and purchased Has Been earlier this year on the advice of a musician friend of mine, and lo and behold, the former Captain Kirk – with the help of producer and co-writer Ben Folds – pulls off a brilliant combination of wit, vulnerability, frustration and hilarity.
Shatner can’t sing. He knows he can’t sing, and when I mean he can’t sing, I don’t mean he can’t sing well, I mean he CAN NOT SING. It’s okay. Instead, he executes something close to beat poetry behind a backdrop of Folds musical compositions, and the results are often mesmerizing. My favorite tracks from the album:
- “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” After the entertaining cover of “Common People,” Shatner lets the listener know that the album isn’t going to be one big joke, that lyrically he can match the uneasiness and regret of a good Jackson Browne song. Wonderfully evocative.
- “You’ll Have Time.” Sure, it goes on a bit long, but it’s an excellent example of how a performance can raise the ante. Reading the lyrics to this song and one might think, “meh,” but hear the lyrics out of Shatner’s mouth, and it’s comedic perfection.
- Nothing wins me over more than an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously (and there have been plenty of times in Shatner’s career when he seemed to take himself WAY too seriously), and in “I Can’t Get Behind That” he and Henry Rollins recite a litany of things that make their blood boil. And then Shatner says, “I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking. How easy is that?” I’m sold!
So there you are. Two of undoubtedly dozens of great albums I missed in the mid 2000s. If you’ve got a few more suggestions, send them my way. It seems there’s always time to make up for lost time.