Friday, April 13, 2007

Paul McCartney and Wings’ ‘Wild Life’ – Anatomy of a Lousy Album

Every once in a while I decide to listen to one artist’s albums in order in my car. I have a six CD changer and a 45 minute commute. It takes a while to get through an artist’s output but that’s OK – it’s all about the journey anyway. And I don’t JUST listen to that artist – I mix it up a bit so it’s not all one artist all the time.

I’m actually working my way through a couple of things at the same time right now – Heart’s entire catalog (see my reflection on Heart), the Emerson Lake and Palmer’s boxed set Return of the Manticore and McCartney’s solo work. This particular trip through McCartney’s work started a couple of weeks ago when I felt like listening to Ram (his second solo album) and decided to go from there. So the next stop on my listening tour was the much maligned Wild Life, the first album with McCartney’s new band, Wings. This album is generally considered the weakest in the whole McCartney catalog (which, by the way, is a LOT of albums!) I’ve certainly heard it multiple times before but I hadn’t listened to it in a couple of years and, while I’m driving alone I often do some of my best listening. I decided that this album is, indeed, pretty poor and there are a couple of good reasons why this album is considered so weak.

Reason #1: The recording. McCartney loves to try gimmicks in recording his albums. Band on the Run was recorded in Nigeria, London Town on a boat in the Caribbean, Run Devil Run was recorded by Paul coming into the studio with hand-written lyrics to old obscure rock songs, teaching the band, rehearsing a few times and then quickly recording the track. On a few albums, (notably McCartney and McCartney II) he plays all the instruments himself. On a few others (some of his very best like Flaming Pie and Chaos and Creation) he plays many of the instruments and is joined by guests only when needed. Just before recording Wild Life Paul read that Dylan had recorded an album quickly (like in a week) and he decided that he wanted to do that with Wings’ first album. So the finely crafted production that defines so much of Paul’s best work is completely absent on Wild Life. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a crack band like he did on Run Devil Run or even Driving Rain, his other most notable quickly recorded albums and it shows. The opening seconds of Wild Life gives us the sound of a tape machine coming up to speed as the band is already playing and we hear McCartney say “tape it, Tony!” We hear performances and arrangements that seem like they were done on the spot and could really have benefited from some rethinking, re-recording and editing. But there was no time – this album was recorded in a flash because McCartney wanted to try making an album that way.

Reason #2: The band. Sorry, I have to say it; this band wasn’t good enough to make an album this quickly. Linda’s vocals were never great but on this album they’re really poor and pretty high up in the mix, giving many of the songs a slightly out-of-tune feel to them. The combination of Paul, Linda and Denny’s voices gave Wings its unique sound but at this point they just aren’t together and it doesn’t work. The playing is, for the most part, uninspiring. Even Paul’s vocals on songs like the title track are weaker than almost any other album.

Reason #3: The songwriting. This is perhaps the weakest collection of songs that McCartney has released on an album over his entire career. “Mumbo,” the opener is just a jam that was recorded. “Bip-Bop” is as trite as it sounds like it might be from the title. Some of these songs could have been salvaged with better production – for example, there is a fully produced and arranged bootleg version of “Tomorrow” floating around that is quite nice. But overall these songs just don’t cut it. The high point is probably Wings’ cover version of an old Ian and Sylvia song, “Love is Strange.” This is a sorry state of affairs for one of the best songwriters of the last fifty years.

So I think this album deserves the poor reviews it gets. The good news is that Paul fixed almost all of these problems with his next album, Red Rose Speedway, which is better in every way and is a delight to listen to. It also featured the mega-hit “My Love” so Paul not only made a better album; he got back on track commercially. I loved it in 1973 and I love it now. I think I’ll listen to it a few more times before I move on to the next one.


Patrick said...

I'm not a "Bip Bop" fan but like the sound of the album and its tunes. Don't forget "Dear Friend" a great song that responds to Lennon's "How Do You Sleep"...

xavier said...

I used to love Wildlife and Ram and I still do. I played Wildlife again yesterday for the first time in years. I agree that many of the choruses are slightly out of tune, not just Linda, Paul and Denny too.
But I feel that any album that has Dear Friend, Tomorrow, Wildlife and I Am Your Singer on it has got to rank among ones favorite albums. Bipbop is nice although maybe a little long. I think the album was ill received because the first song Mumbo wan't so good. The first song usually sets the tone for critics. But critics never liked McCartney anyway, until lo-fi surfaced in the mid nineties.