Kisses on the Bottom’s concept: Paul McCartney makes jazzy renditions of pop standards he treasures. That’s about it.
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing” –Book of Revelation, 3:15-3:17
Lukewarm this album is, indeed. And lukewarm has been most of McCartney’s oeuvre over the course of five decades: even in his most experimental outfits (Liverpool Sound Collage, The Fireman) and ambitious orchestral projects (Liverpool Oratorio, last year’s ballet Ocean’s Kingdom), there has always been a glowing, temperate, harmless quality in the musical output of the soft-edged Beatle. He has always played it warm and safe, but in this album, he is playing it warmer and safer than ever (probably the riskiest he gets is through the album’s punned title). Following the Manichean — and apocalyptic — nature of specialized music criticism, it is very tempting to chew on McCartney’s music and immediately spit it out. However, both sparks of professional musicianship (Diana Krall and her band led by veteran producer Tommy LiPuma) and a conscious choice of avoiding the swing-ish approach to pop standards prevent, at the very least, a hasty regurgitation act.
Gentle piano cadences, string-laden arrangements, unhurried tempo, thick double-bass lines, grainy cymbals, whistling codas (“My Very Good Friend The Milkman”), a subtly introduced children’s choir (“The Inch Worm”), anecdotal guest spots by Eric Clapton (“My Valentine,” “Get Yourself Another Fool”) and Stevie Wonder (“Only Our Hearts”): all these elements configure a semiotics of the traditional pop standard pursuing sentimental simplicity and framed intimacy, a designation of fake nostalgic reminiscences of older times for modern generations — its pretended quality made evident by a general lack of expressiveness derived from Macca’s venerable, almost vibrato-less voice. “This is an album you listen to at home after work, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea,” says McCartney, reinforcing that stylish state of tepidness under a disguise of middle-class sophistication. 2 out of 5, that should the equivalent of lukewarmness be: a delusion of critical objectivity supported by a measurable scale as some positivist truth demonstrating how moderately standard this standards album is.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” –Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
John Lennon died a martyr — and a hero. Paul McCartney hasn’t died (officially). And during his 40-year post-Beatles career, McCartney has come up to break world records in sales and become the fourth richest person in the music business on the planet, next in the list to really despised characters — such as Simon Cowell or Simon Fuller (who could be held partially responsible for pop’s current debacle within today’s society of spectacle). Despite his wide philanthropic labor — including conventional activism like vegetarianism and support for animal rights — the obscene accumulation of wealth and his raw business practices (such as denying access to some of his music through streaming services) make him an easy target for jokes.
Hear Music, the Starbucks-related music label to which McCartney is signed, follows the coffee company’s belief of turning anything — beverages, physical spaces, casual conversation, and of course music — into profitable assets: artists and songs as “compelling music choices for consumers,” as the label claims on their website. Massification, standardization, and ubiquity: these are the characteristics of today’s villainous music as those manifestations labeled as ‘easy listening,’ one of the most commodified genres in pop music’s history. But what if “there really can be depth to ‘banality’”? What if “’lightness’ can elevate the soul”? Isn’t ‘easy listening’ a full-of-stereotypes language per se? Doesn’t a stereotype resemble an anonymous quote, a generalized cite?
“To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” –Walter Benjamin
Perhaps after the nicely-crafted Memory Almost Full, McCartney suffered from a ‘stack overflow,’ and in his search for redemption — he is turning 70 this year — he has resorted to these traditional songs as a means to holistically apprehend the history of Western popular music. Standards, as persistent quotes in pop, constantly shape their meaning according to the different contexts in which they are interpreted, but they also reconfigure a specific understanding of the past. McCartney’s original compositions (“My Valentine,” “Only Our Hearts”), his contributions to the canon, acknowledge the cultural transcendence of the inconclusive Great American Songbook, not only for the US, but for the rest of the mass-mediated globe (with cinema, for instance, as one of the vehicles for transmitting this specific form of cultural imperialism). Swing, vocal jazz, and standards have once again become fashionable (see: Michael Bublé, Robbie Williams, Rod Stewart, et al.), and just as in the Benjaminian sense of fashion — an eternal recurrence of the new — they continuously cite a bygone mode of music: past becoming citable in all its moments (the preciously awaited Beatles track, “Carnival of Light,” can be considered the ultimate anti-quote, precisely because it is not known: it exists as a believed abstraction).
So, when does a quote turn from a time-honored statement to a bromidic experience? It all depends on the frame of reference, and as quotes are always misplaced and anachronistic, they do not have a spatial and temporal definition of their own. This neutral — ahistorical and apolitical — comfort zone is expected to be commonplace: its music is designed to be likeable even before listening to it — an a priori judgment fallaciously growing into an a priori truth — and thus, it can be proposed that, for its purpose, it doesn’t need to be listened to. Instead, it owes its existence to a body full of quotes and cross-references (just as this text). The act of quotation reflects an intrinsic historicist approach, and it ends up becoming self-referential, taking us back to the the concept for Kisses on the Bottom: Paul McCartney makes jazzy renditions of pop standards he treasures. And that’s about it.