For people who create, a body of work is a building project. When you make something great or timeless, new additions can stand on their own, but in the court of public opinion, they are perceived in relation to and understood in the context of what already exists. There’s a pressure to that, and it’s why the greats are guarded about what the public does and doesn’t see, why a restless talent like Prince was cagey about his vaults and would just as soon pull a fantastic record like 1987’s The Black Album if he didn’t feel right about the way it would be received. As rock, pop, and funk elders enter their twilight, they devise many different methods of engaging with the moods in their back catalogue. Some revisit and revise the classics, like interior decorators giving familiar rooms new life. Others take a shine to standards, like recent Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan albums dedicated in whole or in part to covering songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. This month, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon have released new albums that seem, in their method, restless about their place in the rock canon. McCartney’s Egypt Station attempts to shake up the former Beatle’s trademark sentimentality and elegance by getting loose, randy, and a little political. Simon’s In the Blue Light arrives at the tail end of the Newark-born veteran’s farewell tour, giving some old favorites new arrangements.
Inadvertently or maybe on purpose, Kanye West and Rihanna’s 2015 singles “All Day” and “Four, Five Seconds” tripped off one of the more intense moments of musical culture clash in recent memory, as fans of Wings and the Beatles were introduced to the younger artists performing alongside Mr. “Yesterday,” while an armada of rap and pop fans under 30 scrambled to sniff out the identity of the British gentleman playing bass in between Ye and Rih. If you were conversant in the work of all three artists, the singles were events; musicians often talk about loving the Beatles but few go as far as tracking one down, let alone calling him in for a record as brain-melting as “All Day.” Egypt Station retains the spry youthfulness of those collaborations in mood if not in the arrangements; it eases off the electronic flourishes of the last album, 2013’s New, but leans looser and freer in its language in songs like “Fuh You” and “Come on to Me,” where the 76-year-old songwriter sails off sensual pickup lines at a potential mate.
Egypt’s love songs are catchy but also cloying, and not in the way that a song like “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” burrows into your head and marches around inside until you swear fealty. “Fuh You” is iPhone ad catchy, Ed Sheeran catchy. It touts the kind of naggingly obvious melodies you can imagine Paul blushing about when he wrote “Silly Love Songs.” “Fuh You” — and “Come on to Me” and “Confidante” and “Caesar Rock” — are so mannered they almost seem beneath a songwriter of McCartney’s caliber. The real gift of Egypt Station is the old ’60s spirit of defiance and unity that shows face in “Who Cares,” “People Want Peace,” “Despite Repeated Warnings,” and “Dominoes.” When McCartney works at inspiring the listener, he, too, seems rejuvenated. The hooks and harmonies regain their spark, the lyrics stop playing at coming off cool, and you get a glimpse of a true elder statesman holding court in a rocky political climate. Egypt Station could’ve used more focus and a few less tracks; 16 songs is enough to drag, and too many of the misses land too early in the track list. For the intrepid McCartney fan, there’s a lot here to love. Scoop it out and add it to a playlist, if you dare.
Paul Simon’s In the Blue Light is a shorter, quieter record that doesn’t gamble on new compositions, even though Simon’s last effort, 2016’s capable Stranger to Stranger, evidenced a still-ferocious pen. Like a playlist curated by a superfan, Blue Light resurfaces gems from disparate corners of the singer-songwriter’s catalogue, eschewing fan favorites in favor of sturdy, unsung deep cuts. If you’re looking for the hits, slide back into Concert in the Park, because the album best represented in this collection of reworks is 2000’s You’re the One. Simon’s tired of the classics, and he worried in a recent CBC interview that he was becoming a “Paul Simon cover band”: “You’re playing the same music all the time, and at a certain point, even though it’s what audiences want, it takes its toll on musicians.”
At their best, In the Blue Light’s new arrangements draw new moods out of familiar lyric sheets. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor,” the gospel tune from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, loses steam and backing vocals but gains a brass accompaniment that embraces the sadness the original song seemed intent on rebuffing. “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy,” the country waltz from Still Crazy After All These Years, is deconstructed by jazz players John Patitucci, Sullivan Fortner, and Joe Lovano. yMusic and the National’s Bryce Dessner beautifully recast the percussive Rhythm of the Saints gem “Can’t Run But” as a sea of interlocking woodwind and string parts, ditching the frantic feel of the original but not the sense of advancing drama. You’re the One’s “Love” comes off homogenized and a little dry here for streamlining the original’s syncopated drums. There’s the pervasive sense that this collection is missing something — like a video component showing Paul Simon playing off of Dessner, yMusic, and other illustrious guests whose names you catch combing the album credits, like Wynton Marsalis and Bill Frisell. On its own, In the Blue Light is an album for the wee, small hours, all open space and hushed chamber ensembles. That makes these reimagined tunes poised and pretty but also a little lightweight.
Change is intimidating for artists like Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, whose audiences grew to love them over 50 years ago. They shouldn’t have to live as jukeboxes, endlessly flashing back to the Summer of Love and revisiting songs that are old enough to apply for AARP. They should feel free to change, to grow new skills, and to torch old ways of engaging with the familiar. But they should also take care, as gifted architects and designers do, in making sure that whatever they set about building on storied property is as sturdy as everything that’s already there. Egypt Station’s chipper, Beatlesesque tunes try, but sometimes it isn’t hard enough. In the Blue Light straddles the line between soothing and sleepy, but at least it’s a peaceful sleep. It’s not that either artist has run out of steam. Both just need to press harder.