“Kisses on the Bottom” by Paul McCartney

Oddly enough, one of the most ‘Traditional Pop’ albums of the 2010s came from a seemingly unexpected source…a legendary pioneer of the genre that replaced the Great American Songbook in America’s popular culture, former Beatles member Paul McCartney. But this probably shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise: McCartney has always shown a visible love for the older classics of his parents’ era, paying tribute to them with such songs as “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Your Mother Should Know” in his Beatles era and continuing to do so with items like “You Gave Me the Answer” in his solo career. With that it mind, perhaps it should seem more inevitable than surprising that he finally joined the now-common trend of big-name rockers making albums of standards.

It’s worth noting that, while all the Beatles were geniuses in their own fields, McCartney was really the only one of them to command a truly first-rate singing voice. McCartney’s voice has lost much of its force and fullness as the years have gone by, reducing it to a mere wisp of sound, but it has lost virtually none of its beauty. On the more up-tempo selections on this album, such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” (from whence comes the amusing pun in the album title), he offers some of the most delicate Swing you’re ever likely to hear, projecting a glowingly jaunty ebullience that is almost impossible to resist.

On the more ballad-like passages, his performance is even more subdued, offering some of the most gentle, tender, wistful interpretations of these songs imaginable, and his wispy voice only adds to the effect. Particularly exquisite are his renditions of two songs from Frank Loesser musicals—”More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls and “The Inch Worm” from Hans Christian Anderson. The only place where McCartney’s performance veers from its tone of soft wistfulness is on the palpably bitter “Get Yourself Another Fool”, and even it comes across as very downplayed and realistic, without the theatrics most performers add to that kind of song.

There are several standards on this album that are more familiar in England than over here in the U.S., and while American listeners might not recognize them (and might find their twee style a bit of an acquired taste), McCartney fans will be fascinated, because songs like “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” clearly show the influences McCartney was drawing on when he wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four” and its ilk. There are two McCartney originals mixed in with the standards, but you might have a bit of trouble finding them, because while they do have the subtly recognizable mark of McCartney’s songwriting, the haunting “My Valentine” and the tender “Only Our Hearts” blend in seamlessly with the actual period tunes on this album. Granted, McCartney, as I observed earlier, has always had a gift for pastiche, but these songs are still impressive achievements in that regard, not to mention being lovely songs in their own right.

And for those of you who might find the extremely distinctive-sounding instrumentation on this album a bit…familiar, yes, that’s lauded Jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall playing the piano and leading the band. Krall does this occasionally on albums by stars even bigger than herself, such as Barbra Streisand’s Love Is the Answer (after all, she first got her start doing the same thing for Tony Bennett), and she never fails to add her own unique flavor in the process. Here, her haunting jazziness helps balance McCartney’s gentle sentimentality and keep it from coming off as cloying the way some of his solo albums have in the past.

This is quite seriously one of the most beautiful albums I have heard in a long time. It seems I’m not alone in this estimation: it received considerable acclaim at the time, even winning a Grammy, and even without McCartney’s prior reputation to back it up, I would readily nominate it as one of the finest albums of the current decade in any field. This decade has seen a number of acclaimed late-career comebacks for Classic Rock giants (Bob Dylan’s Tempest, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, and David Bowie’s Blackstar, to name a few), and while this may not be the most ambitious or substantial of those projects, it could hold its own with any of them in terms of sheer beauty.

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