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What do you do when you are the Cute Beatle approaching 70? Age—and those decades of inhaling herb—is finally catching up to those pipes, yet vanity or stubbornness prevents you from simply clipping on that capo to sing your classics in a lower key. Oh, and your name is Sir Paul and you’re the only survivor of pop’s most valuable (in every sense) conglomerate who is not Ringo.
There are some obvious choices. A reality show? Been there, done that. A Rick Rubin-produced warts and all expose? You would find that Paulie’s gritty is everyone else’s pretty. As the son of a dance hall bandleader, James Paul McCartney always deferred to the Great American Songbook’s greatness. Moving from the stadiums (where, for a $500 ticket, he will do his damndest to hit a younger bloke’s high notes) to LA’s Capitol studios, where he crooned into Nat Cole’s old mic, he is not only aging with dignity but with a subtle beauty young Paul may have missed a few decades ago, when the temptation to show off his octaves (and Little Richard-inspired holler) would be too great.
Kisses On the Bottom may sound to the uninitiated like a an acquired taste among libidinal positions, but its actual provenance is more coy: a phrase from “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a 1935 chestnut with music by Fred E. Ahlert and lyrics by Joe Young, popularized by Fats Waller, who never met a double entendre he didn’t like; the “bottom” is the end of a letter, but with a wink that would anticipate “Baby’s Got Back” and other ditties.
Kisses On the Bottom, Macca’s 16th studio solo album, harkens back to a time when it would have been unthinkable to sing a line like, say, “I’d love to turn you on.” But of course, troubadours for centuries have been seeking exactly that, and in this realm of Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, McCartney harkens back to a professional tunesmith tradition he and John Lennon eviscerated, replacing it with a singer-songwriter tradition that still has legs.
If your benchmark of a “great jazz singer” is Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln—well, Kisses isn’t in that league. But who would have expected Paul to grow beyond silly love songs?
Diana Krall played piano and arranged with exceptional taste and skill—and the sheer delight of the songs themselves. She swung like hell uptempo and made schmoochy poetry out of the ballads. Paul sat in the booth and, not picking up a guitar or piano, just held back and sang songs that were obviously etched into his unconscious. It would have been nice if, in the spirit of the bottom, he’d sung a little deeper; “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” as immortalized into that hallowed mic by Cole himself, was sublimely sonorous, but Paulie’s rendition sounds wispy—pleasingly so, but still—in comparison.
“When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Honey Pie,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” may not be your favorite Beatles songs (Lennon despised them all), but they do demonstrate how, even in the Summer of Love, the music hall was still abuzz in his brain. Since his superb 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and disappointing 2007 Memory Almost Full (most of which was written and recorded before Chaos and Creation) his songwriting well seemed to evaporate.
His tumultuous and unpleasantly public divorce from Heather Mills did not inspire a Blood on the Tracks. Bile is just not Paulie’s Muse. He had to fall in love and even become a Jew (like the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Harold Alren et al) before he could see if he could, on his third marriage and approaching his seventh decade, have a new ditty in him. That song, “My Valentine,” with some acoustic plucking by old mate Eric Clapton, has sort of hokey lyrics, but no more hokey than those of Lorenz Hart. It also sounds like it almost always existed. He plucked some love me do’s from out of nowhere, and suddenly you feel goose bumps and your heart aflutter. Our Paulie of Eternal Joys may or may not be half the man he used to be, but that other half still has some new lyricism in him, nestling somewhere new between the borrowed and the blue. It’s almost like being in love.