Paul McCartney’s New Ambition

mccartney 3 getty Paul McCartneys New AmbitionForty-five years ago, Beatlemania was semiofficially diagnosed when the Beatles performed to an audience of millions on The Ed Sullivan Show.

A year later, they performed the very first concert ever held at Shea Stadium.

This week, Paul McCartney is back to christen that arena’s replacement, Citi Field. And while in town, he’ll be heading to the Ed Sullivan Theater July 14 to play for that theater’s new inhabitant, David Letterman.

The concerts and Late Show appearance kick off Mr. McCartney’s latest U.S. tour, which will take him across the country.

It’s somehow fitting that, both really and virtually, Mr. McCartney is returning to these epochal venues.

At times, Mr. McCartney’s most recent reinventions have, if anything, strained for the trappings of 21st-century relevance and ended up being pure nostalgia. At the end of the summer, both Citi Field and the Ed Sullivan will be featured in the Beatles version of the video game “Rock Band,” slated for a Sept. 9 release. The game comes packed with 45 Beatles songs to play (or to approximate playing) in your living room—like 21st-century sheet music!

But at Citi Field and the Ed Sullivan Theater this week, it’s the music that will be the center of attention. And that is good for Mr. McCartney, because nowadays, and for the first time in a long time, he is exhibiting some part of the ambition that made the Beatles, and an earlier Mr. McCartney, not just world-famous, rich, the center of the recording-industry universe, but actually great.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to speak of a man like Paul McCartney as having been unambitious. But given his early legendary status, it was easy to think that the fans’ connection to Mr. McCartney made success too easy for him.

How do you continue a career that seemingly can’t go wrong, and infuse it with the energy that accompanied that first American tour?

In many ways, this recent shift is the result of years spent in the dead center of the music industry, watching its decline. It’s also proof that Mr. McCartney the studio tinkerer, responsible for backward guitar lines and orchestral cacophonies in the Beatles days, hasn’t lost his curiosity.

It’s possible that no one was as entrenched or even as responsible for what happened to the music industry since 1970 as Paul McCartney (and by extension, the Beatles). He was signed to EMI for decades and made the label very rich (and he didn’t do so bad for himself). Yet by 2007, McCartney was convinced the industry had reached the end of its usefulness. He called EMI “boring.” He walked.

Mr. McCartney’s relationship to Big Music has often been contentious, but never has it propelled him so far outside its own conventional commercial wisdom as it has now.

Soon after the game’s release, downloadable versions of Beatles albums, starting with Abbey Road, will finally be made available. (The Beatles haven’t exactly been on the edge of new technologies; it took years before their catalog was first available on CD, too.) In a nice touch, a download of “All You Need Is Love” will be available exclusively to Xbox 360 users and proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders.

One return that isn’t in the cards for Sir Paul is those Beatles songs Michael Jackson owned before his death. In the past weeks, rumors swirled that he had willed the songs back to Mr. McCartney (and Ringo, one presumes), but this turned out to be untrue. On his Web site, Mr. McCartney explained that it was fine, because the alleged will was “something I didn’t believe for a second.” He also insisted that the famed rift between the two onetime collaborators (“The Girl Is Mine,” “Say Say Say”) was overplayed by the media: “In fact, though Michael and I drifted apart over the years, we never really fell out, and I have fond memories of our time together.” He did however call Michael a “boy man,” which may be accurate, as well as accurately creepy.

One former associate whose passing likely did not elicit fond memories for Mr. McCartney was Allen Klein, who died July 4. The noted cutthroat manager who once quipped “Don’t talk to me about ethics” tried to wrest the Beatles catalog just as the band was splitting up (he’d conned his way into many valuable Rolling Stones rights years before), but thanks in part to Mr. McCartney’s vocal dissent, he never got a chance.

Mr. McCartney learned from these un-square dealers. He’s been working to extricate himself from middlemen for the past two years. He’s in a video game. He’s circumventing the major-label system that once revolved around him. He was quoted in the press saying he’d like to work with MGMT (they’re opening a few dates on this tour). Who is this old hipster?

He became the first artist on the Starbucks–Concord Music Group’s Hear Music Record Co. Memory Almost Full was well received, among critics but especially by the public, and sold more than a million copies in the U.S.—his highest-selling stateside release in 25 years. The 2007 album was solid though comfortable, not much of a musical surprise. Mr. McCartney also made a deal to sell the album through iTunes, and even allowed a song to be used in a commercial for the online music giant.

Hear Music seemed like a sure thing. But by 2008, Starbucks’ model wasn’t looking so rosy anymore. Returns diminished through Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon and James Taylor and onto, uh, Cat Power (apparently just being in a Starbucks isn’t enough to make people buy music by someone other than someone who was in the Beatles). As Starbucks started slashing prices and closing hundreds of branches, Hear Music got shunted over entirely to Concord Music, and Starbucks focused on its partnership with iTunes rather than cultivating a label.

But set adrift, Mr. McCartney did not return to the majors. In fact the decline of Hear Music may have been even more liberating for him. His next album was self-released in late 2008 by MPL, an imprint of his own London-based publishing company, and distributed through indie labels (ATO, One Little Indian) as well as on his own Web site. It was also released under the name Fireman, not as Paul McCartney—the return to that moniker for the first time in a decade. (He’s used it twice before in non-vocal electronic collaborations with producer (and ex–Killing Joke bassist) Martin “Youth” Glover, in 1993 and 1998).

All the Fireman albums have been expressly about pushing Paul McCartney to places where he sounds very un-McCartney. In the past, that’s meant rather drippy electronica. This time it meant a rather joyous (and noisy!) psychedelic pop album titled Electric Arguments, in which there’s no piano balladeering and even less anthemized “Hey Jude”–like formula-ism. The album ranges from the heavy kerrang of the opener (“Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight”) to the plaintive and lo-fi follow-up (“Two Magpies”), reminiscent of the hushed urgency of his early solo albums, and on through string sections and rousing marching-band fervor and even a bit of hymn singing (“Is This Love?”).

The collaborative duo worked swiftly, crafting 13 tracks in as many days, yet the results feel vital rather than slapdash. There are thunderous, Zeppelin-like rockers and Paul duetting with his own falsetto and Paul’s voice at a shout, nearly subsumed in more than a few reverb storms of epic proportions. He’s done nothing like this in many years. It’s proof that McCartney’s legendary experimental streak is still around and can be folded into his more prosaic pop songwriting.

A statement released about the album bragged that it was “made with no record company restraints or a set release date to work to” and “with complete artistic and creative freedom.”

It shows, and it will be interesting to see how much Macca makes of his newfound freedom.

editorial@observer.com