The Fireman: “Electric Arguments”
It probably wasn’t planned, but it’s fitting just the same that Paul McCartney is releasing his third Fireman album– along with collaborator/producer Youth– just a couple of days after The White Album turned forty. The Beatles’ seminal double album arrived at a time when fans and critics were beginning to think they had Paul all figured out– he was, conventional wisdom held, the schmaltzy, sentimental softy in the group, more enamored with twee recreations of British dancehall and traditional pop than with the experimental, druggy rock of his songwriting partner and rival, John Lennon. Of course, those perceptions weren’t entirely true, something that McCartney seemed zealous to prove, packing the album with some of his most subversively funny, mocking musical parodies, spoofing the Beach Boys and lampooning country traditions. And then, of course, there was the nasty, proto-metal howl of “Helter Skelter”– a song that proved that, if nothing else, McCartney was more than just a big musical teddy bear.
McCartney finds himself in a similar place in 2008– he’s as restless as ever, but fans and critics think they have him pegged. Granted, his recent solo albums don’t help his case, as even the very fine, classicist albums Memory Almost Full and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, plus his old-time rock and roll celebration Run Devil Run, give the illusion that McCartney lost his spark and his spunk along the way, and is all too content to play the role of rock traditionalist. But of course, Paul has never been the type to stay in one place for too long, no matter what the narrative about him might say, and Electric Arguments, the first Fireman album in a decade, offers ample proof that, when he wants to, he can be as forward-thinking and experimental as ever before.
Event though Sir Paul has been involed with the British electronic and avant garde scene since the time of Revolver, Fireman is often written off as his “electronica” side project, but that’s only true to a certain extent; sure, Youth is an electronically-inclined producer, and the first two Fireman albums were heavy on soundscapes and rapid-splice DJ pieces, but Electric Arguments is a different animal entirely, an organic collaboration that sounds cutting edge even as it’s based in familiar McCartney pop idioms. Not only is it the first Fireman album to bear the names of Youth and McCartney on its cover– the first two were supposed to be anonymous, though of course it’s hard to keep McCartney’s presence on something a secret for very long– but it also finds itself a curious antecedent in McCartney’s catalog: His terrific, underrated album Ram. That album was a wonderfully ramshackle, loose collection with an appealing homemade quality, and though Electric Arguments is much more high tech, it captures the spirit, if not the sound, of that classic work. Like Ram, it feels very much like a labor of love between two collaborators, a joyful and loose recording that takes joy in small moments and tiny treasures. And, also like Ram, it shows McCartney’s gifts to be far broader than he’s often given credit for, following its own unique sense of logic from the howling opener, “Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight”– which basically sounds like “Helter Skelter” filtered through the electronic gurgling of Youth– through the anthemic, Arcade Fire fervor of “Sing the Changes” all the way through the fragmented, 21st century psychadelia of “Lifelong Passion,” which finds Paul borrowing George’s far East infatuation and channeling it through Youth’s druggy electronica. Indeed, most everything here has some basis in traditional music styles– this is still Paul we’re talking about, after all– but the Fireman duo is positively inspired in the way they make it sound like something from the future.
In other words: This isn’t McCartney by-the-numbers. This is Sir Paul at his most adventurous, at his most freewheeling and loose– and, frankly, at his best in three decades. That the album feels like he’s the ringleader is perhaps a given, simply because his voice is so recognizable and his presence on record so hard to miss, but there’s no denying that there’s genuine collaboration here, with Youth pushing McCartney to try things he’s never tried before and McCartney keeping Youth’s artier tendencies in check, keeping the album very song-oriented and structured for the first time in Fireman history. And that collaborative feel alone makes it a stellar work, but what makes it essential is the fact that, along with another, similar collaboration– Brian Eno and David Byrne’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, released on the same day– the album makes a strong case for electronic-based music as soulful, lively, and spiritual, music that is warm and human while also being daring and experimental. This is music with real blood in its veins, and it’s exhilarating in the way it filters the past through the kaleidoscopic lens of the future.