Kisses on the Bottom
Even the most distracted student of popular culture has probably learned that pop and its unkempt cousin, rock, came along in the 1960s and swept away all that had come before. Teenagers no longer wanted to listen to the same music as their parents, and their parents before them: that frumpy aural wallpaper known as “the standards.” The Beatles were responsible for much of this melodic overhaul, channeling the energy of rock ’n’ roll and R ’n’ B.
As he reaches his 70s, however, it seems as if Paul McCartney has decided to come clean about some other formative influences. Even the Beatles, McCartney’s new album asserts, were touched by the songwriting of the American hit factory auteurs of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s: Irving Berlin (represented here by the saccharine swish of Always), Harold Arlen (Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, rather more fun) and Frank Loesser (More I Cannot Wish You), to name but three. No one was immune. McCartney is normally seen as the Beatles’ soppiest traditionalist, the Fab most in hock to the dapper old dreamers. It’s an impression that persists, even though he’s never shy of portraying himself as source of the Beatles’ more avant-garde ideas. On Kisses on the Bottom, however, he accentuates the conservative.
McCartney’s 15th solo album is a jazzy, feather-light collection of standards, punctuated by two McCartney originals (My Valentine and Only Our Hearts) that blend so immaculately into their habitat, they are hard to spot on first listen. Soon, though, My Valentine stands out because it’s the song that reminds you most of those sentimental Beatles tracks, and because McCartney’s voice sounds most at home on it, necktie undone, pouring itself a gin fizz. Covering these orchestral big-band jazz tunes casts pop’s architect in the strangely straitened role of vocal interpreter, having ceded the playing and arranging to jazz people such as pianist Diana Krall and producer Tommy LiPuma. (Eric Clapton is on here too, as is Stevie Wonder, with a Disney bluebird-style harmonica part on Only Our Hearts.) Where there could so easily have been smug studio torpor, the arrangements are airy; all precisely plunked upright bass and brushed drums.
As a consequence you are drawn, perhaps unfairly, towards McCartney’s vocals. These often feel a little papery. And because the renditions are so breezy, the emotional depths of these songs remain resolutely unexplored. Does anyone other than his new wife really need to hear McCartney sing Benny Goodman’s The Glory of Love? Nothing here is ghastly, exactly; merely anodyne. There is a familiar, testosterone-filled version of history that insists music is just a constant churn of rebellion, one in which pop sneers at standards, rock grunts at pop, punk kicks against prog and machines destroy analogue. In contrast, Kisses on the Bottom foregrounds evolving constancy; just as valid a reading.
There might be a wrinkle or two in the notion of McCartney being an arch-traditionalist, but he does grasp something that runs through a century of popular music. We are all still firmly in thrall to melody and love songs. These standards have a lot still to say — if only they sang a little more potently here.
— By Kitty Empire, The Guardian