In his first original release in nearly five years, Paul McCartney returns with Egypt Station. The album was met with enormous anticipation by fans and the greater artistic community. McCartney, of the Beatles and Wings, is one of the last remaining icons from the British invasion, Beatlemania, and classic rock. While opinions and heated debates rage around the members of the Beatles and their legacy, McCartney has managed to retain his relevance and his quality of work well into his post-Beatles career. To say that this album’s release was one of the most anticipated by music aficionados would be an understatement.
Egypt Station is a 57-minute concept album. McCartney explained that the inspiration for the name of the album in a statement: “I liked the words ‘Egypt Station.’ It reminded me of the ‘album’ albums we used to make… ‘Egypt Station’ starts off at the station on the first song and then each song is like a different station,” McCartney said. “So it gave us some idea to base all the songs around that. I think of it as a dream location that the music emanates from.”
But there’s a lot to say about the actual music too. The album opens with “Opening Station,” a 46-second song that combines the sounds of various train stations and then swells into an exalting vocal exhalation. It’s an interesting way to begin Egypt Station, but it certainly works to the album’s effect—turning on the album is like walking into a train station serenaded by vocals. It also serves as a good bookend and lead-in to the first “real” song, “I Don’t Know.” McCartney laments his inability to get anything right in this melancholy and piano-heavy track. Lyrics like “Well, I see trouble at every turn / I’ve got so many lessons to learn / What am I doing wrong? I don’t know” provide insight into McCartney’s dejection at his life and the choices he’s made. The highpoint of the song is right at the very end, when backing vocals join McCartney on repetitions of “What’s the matter with me?” leaving this reviewer wondering if these could have been used to greater effect earlier in the song. This is not the first time that these other voices join McCartney on lyrics, but the passion and feeling from everyone seems much more apparent right at the end. Maybe this is a reflection of the lyrics’ resignation and eventual acceptance of the singer’s fate.
In a tone shift, Egypt Station turns next to “Come On To Me” for the third track on the album. The song jumps right into heavy percussion beats and strong guitar licks. The song plays as a one-sided conversation between McCartney and a romantic interest, asking nearly rhetorical questions like “If you come on to me, will I come on to you?” repeated to form the choral refrain. The song draws from modern rock as well as what seems like classic southern rock through the use of a harmonica in punctuation of the heavier beats in the instrumentation.
In a much raunchier turn, McCartney follows up this song with Track 6 on Egypt Station, “Fuh You.” This non-word means exactly what you think it does in the context of the song. The song sounds much more modern in terms of the rock songs in McCartney’s catalogue, which almost sounds like sacrilege. Released by any other modern rock band, this would be a totally serviceable and probably good song. Released by McCartney, it sounds almost untrue to his earlier work. Full of crashing waves of vocals and instruments on the heels of lone lyrics, vocal chopping, and vocal pitching, “Fuh You” is not the Paul McCartney of the Beatles or Wings. But, McCartney is clearly keeping up with the best of his younger competitors here—artists can and should evolve after all—and for that he should be commended.
“Back in Brazil” features keyboard work and electronics straight out of the ’70s and ’80s. The song as a whole, while proclaiming its location as the South American country, features aspects from around the world. The flute work that permeates the song is at once both Jethro Tull-like and also drawing one musicality from East Asia. Further evidence to this globalization on “Back in Brazil,” the bridge of the song is a shouted repetition of “Ichiban!” meaning “number one” in Japanese. The song stands out on the album not in quality but in differentiation.
“Caesar Rock” is a misspelling of what McCartney is actually singing in the song: “She’s a rock.” McCartney hardens and roughens his voice for this song. He screams about how he wants to shout to the world about this woman, but can never seem to get the words out. “Caesar Rock” stands out in Egypt Station for its passion and feeling, and for McCartney’s ability to change the entire sound of his voice to one with grit and gristle. In the Beatles and in much of his work on the whole, McCartney’s vocal clarity and crispness was second to none. Yet, many of his fans also enjoy his embrace of his other talents in albums like Wings at the Speed of Sound and Ram. While many music lovers out there know the hits, “Caesar Rock” seems to align closely with one of McCartney’s deep tracks called “Monkberry Moon Delight,” a nonsense song from 1971 where he adopts a nearly Cocker-esque vocal range.
The longest song on the album, “Despite Repeated Warnings,” first appears to be another one of McCartney’s piano and vocal heavy songs in which he takes pauses between each lyric and allows the piano to sing against him. The song, however, is split into two parts. The first is essentially just this, where McCartney bemoans the present state of the captain’s inability to listen and save the sinking ship, “despite repeated warnings.” The second part picks up the tempo, throwing in hard guitar licks and harder vocals. Serving as a not-so-thinly veiled allusion to our current out-of-control political ship helmed by our own unstable and idiotic captain, “Despite Repeated Warnings” livens up into a swelling and nearly groovy song filled with horns and shouted vocals. The song’s quality derives from its multiple tone shifts, like a shortened version of an album like say Band on the Run.
While “Station II” is not the last song on Egypt Station, it is the other bookend of the album. It plays much like “Opening Station,” combining station sounds and vocals. It does end with the start of a guitar lick that leads directly and seamlessly into the final song—“Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link.” McCartney’s vocals seem to be run through a speaker set, lending them an electronic quality that meshes perfectly with the sounding horns and heart-swelling instrumentation. The “Hunt You Down” aspect of the song leads into “Naked,” where McCartney slows down a little bit before jumping into “C-Link,” which is composed entirely of instrumentals.
While McCartney clearly does not achieve the high notes (literally and figuratively) that he used to, no one really expected him to. He is 76 years old, and has been playing music since 1957. He is one of the most important musicians in music history, and it’s truly remarkable and admirable that he continues to record new music so late into his extensive career. Many artists of his age and legacy would be content to retire, or even to simply tour and release “best-of” compilations. McCartney has instead chosen to release Egypt Station, a great album in its own right. While it’s no Band on the Run, Let it Be, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Abbey Road, it is a very good album with multiple songs that deserve and will receive more than just a first, second, or third listen. And Sir Paul McCartney does too, even this late in the game.
Featured Image by Capitol Records