Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s Nov. 2008 All Music Guide review of Paul McCartney and Youth’s third album together (and first song-based…) as The Fireman. This should not be missed by any fan of Paul’s, especially fans of his more experimental stuff…
Ever since the early days of the Beatles, Paul McCartney has known the value of a pseudonym, famously registering into hotels under the surname Ramone and pushing the Fab Four to act like another band for Sgt. Pepper. This carried through to his solo career, where he released a couple odd singles while flitting back and forth with Wings, but he never again embraced the freedom of disguise like he did with Sgt. Pepper until 2008, when he put out the Fireman’s Electric Arguments. McCartney created the Fireman alias with Youth back in the mid-’90s when electronica was all the rage and Macca hesitated dipping his toe in the water on his own LPs. A decade after Rushes, he revived the Fireman moniker not to cut another electronic record but to put out what in effect was McCartney III: a weird clearinghouse of experiments, jokes, detours, and rough-hewn pop. McCartney and Youth recorded Electric Arguments quickly — not so much in a brief, weeklong blast of activity, but spending one day on each of the 13 tracks, writing and recording within a 24-hour period. This speed is the opposite of his ambitious 2000s projects Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and Memory Almost Full, both accomplished, carefully considered albums constructed with a broad audience in mind, if not necessarily the charts. As its release under McCartney’s pseudonym makes plain, Electric Arguments wasn’t intended for a large audience; he did this for himself, just like he did the two McCartney albums and even Ram, three records that had loose ends and odd detours, just like this does.
This revival is announced boldly by the thumping, full-throated blues-rocker “Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight,” but it’s not just that McCartney has gotten loud again — things that McCartney has shied away from over the past two decades suddenly reappear, like the simple, sweet intimacy of “Two Magpies,” the grinding rocker “Highway,” which finds its loose-legged laid-back cousin in “Light from Your Lighthouse,” and a fondness for lazy jazz. He’s telling jokes and making noise — and if you dig underneath the surface it’s possible to hear references to his bitter divorce from Heather Mills, a situation he cheerfully ignored on Memory Almost Full — but this is not merely a McCartney pop album under another name; it is indeed a collaboration with Youth, so this veers off into rather experimental territory, especially toward the end of the album, as it floats away on the circular “Lovers in a Dream” and gets claustrophobic on “Universal Here, Everlasting Now.” McCartney and Youth often strike a delicate balance between these two inclinations, and they’re some of the best moments on the album: the delicate waltz of “Travelling Light,” the surging “Sing the Changes” (which matches U2 for melodrama), the wall of sound on “Dance ‘Til We’re High,” and the beautiful, meditative “Lifelong Passion (Sail Away).” There are more twists and turns, more textures, than on any other McCartney album in the last 20 years, and if it’s a little messy, so be it: it’s better to have Paul letting it all hang out instead of hanging back.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine