Any McCartney-branded album is bound to be a "big deal." Sales-wise, the quality of the music is almost trivial. But on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, the former Beatle sweats the small stuff. A collaboration with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), Chaos lands the 63 year-old in a youthful new place. With Godrich at the helm, McCartney's songwriting breathes as readily as it did on Driving Rain (2001) but with less burdensome nostalgia.

That's not to say Chaos is without reflection. In fact, McCartney is most honest when he allows himself to look back. On "Promise to You Girl," he sings: "Looking through the backyard of my life / Time to sweep the fallen leaves away" -- a line that hauntingly evokes the end of a band (perhaps the best ever), the loss of a wife, Linda, and of a friend, George Harrison. Surprisingly (and brilliantly), "Promise to You Girl" becomes the album's liveliest track -- one which clearly garners momentum from a fertile present and a promising future -- proving that, at 63, McCartney cannot hide from his past, but he isn't going to live in it either.

On the whole, the material on Chaos proceeds at unhurried tempos, calling upon Godrich's sparse but effective sonic layers for strength. On "Jenny Wren," the album's standout track, somber melody and fingerpicked guitars harken back to White Album simplicity. Non-obtrusive string arrangements give "At the Mercy" a magical, effervescent quality, and the brass on "How Kind of You" tactfully bolsters McCartney's signature coo.

But if the veteran songwriter is going to remain in the business, he needs to keep abreast of industry trends. "A Certain Softness," McCartney's attempt at bossa, is both beautiful and begging for airplay in dental offices. And then there's "Follow Me," which asks listeners to travel: "Down the track of loneliness, down the path of love / Through the words of heartache, to the end." You can't help but admire the old codger, though; he's still trying to prove that "All You Need is Love." Still, this is the age of gangsta rap, and the classic rock icon is desperately in want of lyrical edge.

For years, McCartney has tried to justify the old and the new in his solo albums, and he hasn't quite done it here. But Chaos is still the closest he's been and, maybe, the closest he'll get.


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