When one examines the most significant names in the history of rock ‘n’ roll — or in the decades-long history of popular music — Paul McCartney frequently, and deservedly, makes his way onto the list. His legacy — whether as a Beatle, Wings member or solo artist — is profound and long-lasting.
It is also a legacy that is still forming. McCartney could very well have stopped making music decades ago and retired to a billionaire lifestyle while leaving an impressive mark on cultural history. However, he has continued to be active at a pace unlike that of other artists from the classic rock era, many of whom have stopped making original music entirely.
“Egypt Station,” McCartney’s newest album, doesn’t sound the way one might expect an artist whose musical career began in 1957 would. It’s not that McCartney’s voice has aged poorly — it’s impressively intact at 76. Rather, the new sound is because the legend has done what few of his contemporaries have: embraced new technologies and adapted to a world where the sounds of music have changed drastically.
The album, as its title suggests, is in many ways a metaphorical train ride (or an attempt at one) through McCartney’s life. The album is refreshing as it highlights McCartney’s desire to connect with the newest generation and simultaneously allows him to reflect on his long, successful life.
The album’s second track, “I Don’t Know,” is really its first, largely because the opening track — a quiet choral hymn without lyrics meant to send us off as we depart from the “Opening Station” — is only 42 seconds long. What makes “I Don’t Know” vital is how well it sets the tone for the entire album. While McCartney uses a slow piano introduction that gives the impression of a ballad and is reminiscent of his older work, he incorporates a sudden shift to a more modern style 47 seconds into the song, when a progressive drum beat and more electronic sounds instantly combine to produce a sound increasingly familiar to what might be heard on the radio today. After the second song, listeners can already tell that McCartney intends for a change in his already established style.
The lyrics of “I Don’t Know” hold a beautiful hesitance that convey McCartney’s belief of life as being full of constant difficulties that can be challenging to approach. It’s one of several songs on the album through which McCartney seeks to impart his wisdom to a younger audience. For example, the fourth track, “Happy With You,” begins with McCartney telling the audience “I sat around all day / I used to get stoned / I liked to get wasted / But these days I don’t.” Simple words, perhaps, but they tell us that McCartney has found a peace we often wouldn’t associate with a rock star.
The trend of modernity continues in the much more exuberant “Come On To Me,” a song with sexual undertones uncommon in McCartney’s more recent work. It trends toward pop, with a Wall of Sound approach (noisy, with many different instruments at once) that is prevalent in much of today’s Top 40 hits. Despite a general lack of lyrical depth (“if you come on to me / will I come on to you” is said more times than I wish to count), the song’s quick beat and cheerful background make it difficult to dislike.
The most successful tracks on the album land when McCartney clearly has a genre in mind. “Fuh You,” arguably “Egypt Station”’s catchiest song, is his most obvious effort to connect to Generation Z. Like “Come on to Me,” it’s not especially meaningful — the guy’s lover makes him want to do some wild, illegal stuff that he lists rather repetitively — but it hits, as many pop songs do these days, in large part due to a catchy and lighthearted refrain that doesn’t try too hard.
“Egypt Station”’s goal, as McCartney emphasized in interviews preceding its release, is to take us on his journey, which for a rock star wouldn’t be complete without rock songs. The inclusion of more aggressive and less pop-oriented songs — “Who Cares” and “Caesar Rock” come to mind — should probably be lauded. But they don’t quite feel like they belong on this rather progressive album.
On this point, an ill of the album is that the songs don’t flow into each other particularly smoothly; some songs don’t even flow well within themselves, such as “Despite Repeated Warnings,” which feels like it’s basically three songs in one. Within the album, McCartney frequently switches from pop to acoustic ballads to harder rock and then back to pop. This makes for distinct songs that expand the album’s breadth, but makes it more difficult to pinpoint McCartney’s audience. People born in the 1940s? The 2000s? “Egypt Station” straddles the line between 21st-century pop and classic rock so broadly that, at times, it feels like it’s splitting itself in half and doesn’t know if it can stand on its own.
At 16 tracks, the album feels a tad lengthy given that it lacks a distinct, unified sound. McCartney’s attempt to use a controlling metaphor to take us to various “stations” gets forgotten quickly until track 15, “Station II,” when we’re reminded that we’re still on board.
“Egypt Station” portrays McCartney in a new light and demonstrates that his legacy is constantly reshaping itself. His attempts to use newer musical technology and take advantage of the studio equipment for a more creative sound (which is not new for him — he pioneered this as a Beatle) should be praised. Even if the album struggles to find its audience (or theme, really), it proves that McCartney still has a lot to say, and that we should continue to hear him out.