Paul McCartney’s solo career did not get off to a promising start. After The Beatles official dissolution in 1970, which McCartney was largely seen as the main perpetrator of, the bassist released his solo debut, McCartney. Featuring song fragments and loosely focused arrangements, McCartney was savaged by critics, and his follow up with Linda, RAM, was equally dismissed. It wouldn’t be until 1973’s Band on the Run that Paul McCartney would finally get to restore the respect and goodwill that he had earned throughout the 60s.
McCartney’s subsequent career has had a fascinating number of twists and turns: Wings became a full-fledged band, then dissolved just after McCartney was arrested for bringing in a bag full of marijuana to Japan. He recorded another experimental album on his own, and tried to adapt to the 80s aesthetic with mixed success. By the 90s, McCartney had fully transitioned from contemporary hitmaker to legacy act, with only 1997’s Flaming Pie sounding as if McCartney was challenging himself. After a speedy covers album, Run Devil Run, McCartney decided he was going to try and replicate the spontaneity on 2001’s Driving Rain.
Assembling a group of musicians that would go on to back him live for the next two decades, McCartney looked to bring an edge back to his recorded output. And so, he went about assembling a couple of milling rockers, quite a few snoozy piano ballads, and a whole lot of filler that quickly makes you forget that this is actually one of the most uniquely talented songwriters of all time. The way that Driving Rain doesn’t just question McCartney’s legendary penchant for playfulness and genre-hopping but actively works against it is utterly astounding.
The album’s title track is a weak grown-up version of ‘All Together Now’, complete with a counting motif that has insanely diminished returns. ‘Heather’ seems like it’s going to be a pointless instrumental before McCartney comes in at the literal last minute to make it just another passable love song. A sombre cloud hangs over seemingly up tracks like ‘From A Lover To a Friend’ and ‘Back In The Sunshine Again’ that might too-easily be connected with this being the first studio release since Linda McCartney’s death in 1998, but McCartney saves plenty of time to pay tribute to his new wife, Heather Mills, so the gloom now just seems like foreshadowing for how that relationship would end.
It’s certainly not all bad road. ‘I Do’ features McCartney dallying with diminished harmonics, which is an easy shortcut to sounding “Beatlesque”, but he mostly fares well on the earnest track. ‘Freedom’ has a hook that the other songs on the album would die for, and it’s actually less cringe-inducing than its Jingoistic reputation might suggest. ‘About You’ is a lean and tight rocker that probably should have been replicated on more of the album.
McCartney amicably tries to shake up the formula a bit from time to time: ‘Tiny Bubble’ starts with sampled drums, ‘Spinning on an Axis’ exists in the uncanny valley between spoken word and rap, and ‘Riding Into Jaipur’ features McCartney’s return to Indian-influenced music, perhaps as a tribute to his soon-to-be lost fellow Beatle, George Harrison.
Some of these new approaches actually pay off, like on the driving would-be album closer ‘Rinse the Raindrops’. The problem with ‘Rinse the Raindrops’, just like the rest of the album, is that the new territory explored ultimately is a detriment to the album as a whole. In ‘Raindrops’ case, the ten-minute track at the tail end of the album makes an already protracted slog feel like a never-ending through hard rock hell. Whenever McCartney doesn’t take the safe route, it directly contradicts something else on the album, to the extent that the final product just feels like a confused, overlong mess. Or at least that’s what it would feel like if any of the songs had any staying power.
Driving Rain isn’t a colossal failure, but it does commit the most egregious sin a Paul McCartney album could possibly make: it’s boring. Even when he’s missing the mark, McCartney tends to go big. RAM doubled down on the twee homespun folk of McCartney and has had a major afterlife because of it, despite being reviled for a number of years. Pipes of Peace is schlocky 80s pap, but it’s a fascinating document regarding what McCartney felt he had to do to stay relevant. When McCartney fails, it’s because he’s also making a movie (Give My Regards to Broad Street) or a classical oratorio (Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio), or a poorly titled traditional pop music hall throwback (Kisses on the Bottom). There’s always some bigger picture to contextualise McCartney’s misfires, but Driving Rain is just a forgettable album and that’s all.
Tellingly, McCartney has all but ignored Driving Rain since its release. None of the album’s songs have a place within McCartney’s current three-hour-plus concert repertoire. Only one track, ‘She’s Given Up Talking’, was featured in his career-spanning book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. Not even the four-hour deluxe edition of the wide-ranging compilation Pure McCartney has a single note of music from Driving Rain. Very little about Driving Rain has aged well, whether it be the knee-jerk 9/11 reactionary song, the numerous references to Heather Mills, the slick late 90s production style, or the front cover taken on a Casio wristwatch.
Immediately following its release, McCartney teamed up with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to try and reignite his creative spark, and the resulting album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, is one of McCartney’s best releases of his later period. Subsequent albums like Memory Almost Full, New, Egypt Station, and McCartney III all found McCartney once again challenging himself in different ways, and they all serve to illustrate just how nondescript Driving Rain continues to be. But hey, it took him forty years to hit a musical nadir, and McCartney rebounded quickly, so obviously it hasn’t affected him too much. You almost get the feeling that McCartney forgets that Driving Rain exists. If only the rest of us could be so lucky.