No stranger to flimsy concept albums (Sgt. Pepper’s was great because of the songs, not the concept, y’all), Macca here lays down perhaps the flimsiest of them all. In his own words: “‘Egypt Station’ starts off at the station on the first song and then each song is like a different station”. Erm, Paul, doesn’t that metaphor describe, like, every album ever made?
These songs don’t even flow together like the famous Abbey Road second side suite, they’re just… songs. A collection of songs. Just like every other pop album in the world. And adding train sound effects at the beginning and near the end doesn’t suddenly make the whole thing magically cohere into the equivalent of a “train journey”.
Instead, it demonstrates McCartney’s primary weakness as a solo artist – his album “concepts” are typically surface-level, feeble, and don’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny. His attraction to silly love songs and bits of fluff were charming early on in his solo career, when Linda was in the process of changing his life, and both McCartney and Band on the Run stand the test of time as exemplary pop albums. But his schtick grew more and more tiresome over the years, and later albums stagnated where other male rock icons blossomed and deepened with age, exploring the ageing process and receding into their Americana roots at the same time to create rich tapestries of mature rock n’ roll (see especially Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Neil Young).
It’s when the storm clouds of darkness briefly pass through the levity of McCartney’s pop ditties that they become something more interesting, and that’s been true ever since the days of The Beatles, when Lennon was usually the storm (most famously on “We Can Work it Out”). But McCartney could be the storm himself, and if you don’t believe me then check out “When I’m Sixty-Four” again – its jauntiness is undermined twice with minor key chord changes where the lyrics suddenly describe the fear of his love “getting older too” and having to “scrimp and save”. These moments bring an emotional richness to an otherwise simply pleasant song, a richness which is all over The Beatles’ work and helped to make them the greatest band of all time. Yet these varied emotional textures have been sadly lacking from too much of McCartney’s solo work, which has tended towards ephemera.
Which is why it’s a surprise when the first real song on Egypt Station starts off with some melancholy piano and this line: “I got crows at my window, dogs at my door/I don’t think I can take anymore”. Desperately bleak, and, from a 76 year old, portentously gloomy, you would be forgiven for believing this to be a sign that Egypt Station will be a frank look into ageing, like “When I’m Sixty-Four”.
Yet that’s not the case. Before long, Egypt Station returns to the ol’ good day sunshines that are his wont, with unremarkable stuff like acoustic jaunt “Happy With You”, which rejects spliffs for love in a move that would make me congratulate and feel warm towards McCartney as a person, yet simply sounds banal on record: “I used to get stoned/I liked to get wasted/But these days I don’t cause I’m happy with you”.
Good for him and all that, but I expect more from a top-tier songwriter. And sadly very little that follows rises to the exceptionally high standard that he’s set for himself. Low-points include “Caesar Rock”, which doesn’t rock enough, “Who Cares”, which doesn’t care enough, the dreadful attempt at samba “Back in Brazil”, and the even worse shot at political relevancy in “Despite Repeated Warnings” (“How can we stop him?/Grab the keys and lock him up”). As for “People Want Peace”… sure, most people do, but do people want more sappy ballads about wanting peace? Really?
Come on, Paul, you’re better than this. And at its best, Egypt Station can prove it. Rob Sheffield generously describes “Dominoes” as a “masterpiece”, and whilst it isn’t that, it’s a very solid song nonetheless. Its 5 minutes flutter by in a tuneful whirl, as light as a breeze, and Paul’s vocals appealingly strain at the upper end of his register. A backwards guitar solo doesn’t feel out of place. And the final kiss-off, “It’s been a blast”, feels earned.
And though Paul’s drawn ire for the two sex jams on here, particularly the most recent single “Fuh You” (as in “I wanna just…”), for me they are more than fun enough to succeed in a horny lineage that stretches way back in Paul’s songwriting all the way at the very least to 1963’s “From Me to You” (listen to that “keep you satisfied… ooh!” bit again and tell me that it isn’t raunchy) – via “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”, of course. Are people uncomfortable with “Fuh You” because it’s a 76 year old singing it? Because it’s produced by blatantly commercial pop producer Ryan Tedder (Adele, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift)? Or because it’s too “cute” to be raunchy? Me, I think one of the most radical things about the Lennon-McCartney songs in the 60s was their ability to show how raunchy sex and cute romance were far from incompatible. In fact, they could be two sides of the same coin (or hand). So why can’t “Fuh You” be both about sex and sound cute?
Why do people feel so embarrassed that McCartney sounds like he hungrily wants a pop hit, and is willing to work with Tedder? He’s chased after pop hits his whole life. They’re his fix, his drug, even more than weed, and nearly as much as love. So I don’t begrudge him “Fuh You” – I don’t regard it as a mistake or a misstep or whatever. It’s McCartney doing what he’s always done, and his sex-positive side is one of the most likeable things about him.
Elsewhere on the album is ample evidence of McCartney the daring experimenter, if that’s your kind of thing – aided and abetted by producer Greg Kurstin (Pink, Lily Allen, Foo Fighters). There’s not one but two multi-section suites, positioned towards the end (neither of which rank near his best). There’s strings. There’s horns.
But there’s no amount of clever arrangement or studio trickery that can hide this fact: if listening to Egypt Station really were a train journey, it would be a morning commute: overlong, unexceptional… and you’d rather be in bed.
Whereas the albums of The Beatles were frequently like traveling on the Trans-Siberian express – bewitching, awe-inspiring, and with magical views of the world that somehow made you see it anew.