As Good As Yesterday?

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Solo records from aged rock megastars often bring to mind a scene from the movie Broadcast News. A handsome TV anchor asks a nerdy reporter, "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?" The answer: "Keep it to yourself." Who wants to hear songs about the spiritual quests of people for whom financial security and social acceptance ceased to be pressing issues long ago? Rock is traditionally about youthful struggles, so it takes considerable talent to put the genre to work describing the lessons of a $90 per hour meditation class.

But who better qualified to take on that assignment than Paul McCartney, now 59, and Mick Jagger, 58, both of whom have just released solo records? They have good resumes--one co-wrote Can't Buy Me Love, the other co-wrote (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction--and both have kept in practice as working musicians over the years. While Mick's new tranquillity gets old fast, it turns out that Paul actually has the grit to pull it off.

McCartney's Driving Rain (Capitol) finds the sunniest of the Beatles in an inspired funk. The first track, Lonely Road, uses hoarse vocals and rugged Neil Young-style electric guitar (rugged? Paul?) to reckon with the departure of a loved one, surely McCartney's wife and much-maligned musical collaborator, Linda, who died in 1998. McCartney shows himself to be as adept at conjuring up angst as any obscure pack of teenagers in a garage. The hurt in his voice turns the innocuous lines "I hear your music and it's driving me wild/Familiar rhythms in a different style" into a lament all the more moving for the fact that it comes from an artist whose trademark has long been his cheerful disposition. Not many of the other songs, which deal with the brighter aspects of love and aging, as well as loss, quite live up to the high standard of Lonely Road. But his four-piece band keeps up a pleasingly simple groove, abetted by McCartney's graceful bass lines.

But while McCartney is writing music with more soul than he has been able to muster for some time, Jagger, one of rock's most distinctive vocalists, is settling into a bland rut on Goddess in the Doorway (Virgin). From the anthemic Joy to the discolike Everybody Getting High, the music is generally as soft and slick as last month's pumpkin pie, with Jagger's long-suffering voice, which still has a lot of charm, blanketed in 21st century synthesized beats and airy piano lines supplied in part by au courant collaborators like Wyclef Jean. The strongest feeling it drives home is that old guys and drum machines don't mix.

That's sad, because it's clear that Jagger has worked hard on the lyrics, which are mostly about becoming older and wiser. It seems he is so sick of being the front man for the guitar-driven, anti-utopian Stones that he has thrown too much caution to the wind in embracing milder music. If he had held on to a little more of the Stones' devilish sound, his spiritual satisfaction might be easier to take. But given tunes as syrupy as these, the appropriate response to a song titled God Gave Me Everything can only be a ringing, "Keep it to yourself."