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Revisiting 'Chaos and Creation In The Backyard', Paul McCartney's most truthful and human album

Chaos and Creation In The Backyard is Paul McCartney’s most confessional album. It came out inflamed in notoriety as the spotless Beatle was embroiled in one of the most gossip-worthy separations of its day (the McCartney-Mills divorce was only slightly cleaner than the recent Depp-Heard fracas; slightly). It was morally dubious and deliberately detached from the bouncy tunes that made up McCartney’s 2002 effort Driving Rain.

It was coiled, hard-hitting and delivered by a singer who was delivering his vocals in an attempt to salvage himself from drowning. It was recorded under trying circumstances, as Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich made it his mission to record the most impressive McCartney album in decades. During one telling sit down meeting, Godrich informed The Beatle that he would sooner walk from the project than record a work that didn’t sit with his best work.

Godrich purposefully stripped McCartney away from his comforts: The touring band that had accompanied McCartney on his recent tours were dismissed, forcing the bassist to pour his efforts into every instrument himself. Any songs that didn’t move Godrich on an intellectual and emotional level were swiftly binned, proving that the producer had complete control over the work.

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He was willing to go the distance that collaborators Hugh Padgham and Elvis Costello were unwilling to step into, forcing the composer to search for the feelings inside of himself to create his most rewarding work since Tug of War. And much like the man who bade farewell to his former bandmate in 1982, McCartney was angry enough to commit his feelings and foibles onto record.

And there is much to devour into, whether it’s the warnings from the spirits in far away land (‘Friends To Go’), or the excoriation of a life spent parading in the public spotlight (‘Riding To Vanity Fair’). In genre terms, the album serves as something of a pastoral lo-fi work, as McCartney – who performs ‘Jenny Wren’ with impressive, almost meditative, restraint – and his life stories serve as a portal into the mind of the singer as a creative person. For the first time since Tug of War, the orchestral flourishes serve to embellish the narration, but this is a less glamorous affair than anything McCartney has produced, either in The Beatles or as an individual.

He had much to cry about: George Harrison, his oldest friend, had died from cancer, the same illness that had killed his mother and the mother of his children. His new love was falling apart, and there was no hiding the fact that at 62, he was no longer the hotshot pop prince that had disguised long beyond the average sell-by date that music allows for. He was feeling reflective, searching for an England that was slowly disappearing. Keen to preserve his memories of the past, McCartney sang the genuinely affecting ‘English Tea’ as if giving his perceptions to the children who were too young to remember the effects of the two World Wars.

‘English Tea’ was one of the best songs McCartney had written in decades, returning to the minimalism of ‘For No One’ to create a sound painting that was as fallible as the humans that created the installations around the world. McCartney could best express himself through the medium of song, but this was a more immediate vehicle that invited people from all over the globe to sing along to this exhibition of truth.

There are missteps: ‘Anyway’ leans on ‘People Get Ready’ too heavily to enjoy it as a standalone piece, and the turbo charged ‘Fineline’ – all piano stomps and bass hooks – is a badly executed rocker that boasted few merits besides the commercial ones. But at its best, the album bears the hallmarks of reality and tension, making it the closest thing in the McCartney canon to a Plastic Ono Band or a Dark Horse.

Even the glistening keyboards that decorate ‘How Kind of You’, the sonic realisation of McCartney’s internal anguish, is portrayed as a vessel of communication, heightened by some dramatic flourishes and cadences. “I thought I’d never find someone quite as kind as you,” howls the Beatle, suggesting that the cold realisation of love has cost him far more than the contents of his wallet.

By the time the album closes, McCartney emerges a more well-rounded figure, and his decision to return to more conventional pop on Memory Almost Full is not only understandable but it’s also deserved. From the black and white album cover (a photo taken by his brother Mike in their childhood garden) to the snippets of his domestic homestead, McCartney offered it all on Chaos and Creation In The Backyard, and emerges from the trenches a better-developed person, as well as an artist of great vitality and strength.

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