Here’s a story my father likes to tell:
It’s 1967 in Jackson, Mississippi and he’s 18 years old, riding in the car with my grandfather. For several years the two have had a recurring argument about rock ‘n’ roll, specifically the Beatles. My dad thinks their music is revolutionary while my grandfather says the Fab Four make nothing but noise. Instead, he favors big band music and songs by Irving Berlin.
The car’s radio is tuned “to some Lawrence Welk-type station,” as my dad remembers it, which is playing an upbeat, piano-based instrumental song full of soaring horns and string instruments. They’re well into their Beatles argument when my grandfather gestures to the radio and says, “Now this is a good song. This is real music. If the Beatles wrote something like that, I might like them.” My dad turns to his father. “They did,” he says. “That’s an instrumental version of ‘Good Day Sunshine’.”
“Well, then they should have played it that way to begin with,” my grandpa harrumphs. Forty-five years later, thanks to Paul McCartney’s new album Kisses on the Bottom, my grandpa finally got his wish.
McCartney turns 70 this year. It’s surprising, I know. Maybe it’s because his hair is still (dyed?) brown and he still fits into his slender-legged suits, but he doesn’t seem that old. I saw him play the Apollo Theater last year and he belted the ending of “Hey Jude” with as much energy as he did when the song was first recorded. Macca’s still got it, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Kisses on the Bottom. There is no ‘it’ there. No rocking, no rolling, nothing that will take you above a resting heart rate. The Beatle appears to have finally grown old.
Kisses is a collection of 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s standards that McCartney has known since childhood — his father was a former big band member, after all. From tunes such as “Your Mother Should Know” and “Martha My Dear” (and of course the “woke up, got out of bed” part in “A Day in the Life”), it’s clear that this musical era influenced his songwriting. McCartney has great reverence for these classics and he does them proud on Kisses, which on the whole is a very charming album. It’s produced by Tommy LiPuma and arranged by Alan Broadbent and Diana Krall (who also plays piano on it). The record feels relaxed and effortless, as if McCartney simply got bored one afternoon, pulled an old songbook off the shelf, called up a few friends — Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton make brief appearances—and recorded some songs for a lark.
Listen to McCartney deliver the 1940s tune “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and it’s easy to imagine him soft shoeing his way through a song-and-dance routine. He even twists his voice on “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” into a nasal whine that very much resembles the one belonging to the song’s original singer, Fats Waller. But the elderly creak is beginning to become apparent in McCartney’s voice. It’s faint, but it’s there.
Kisses has been called McCartney’s first return to his roots. But that’s not exactly correct. In the late 1980s, he released an album called Снова в СССР in the Soviet Union (U.S. audiences heard it in 1991) that explored early rock ‘n’ roll songs that more directly influenced his Beatles work. The album even included a rendition of Little Richard’s “Lucille,” which McCartney had covered back in the Fab Four’s early days. Kisses isn’t, therefore, a definitive collection of tunes that McCartney feels were most important in his life. They just seem to be the ones that he’s taken with right now.
And he is very taken with them. There are just two McCartney originals on the album, “Valentine” and “Only Our Hearts.” The former is a sparse love song featuring Eric Clapton on finger-picked guitar, while the latter’s orchestral arrangement sounds exactly like something that might have been played on my grandfather’s favorite radio station. They highlight just how fully he has embraced this musical mode — and why we might not get another “Maybe I’m Amazed” any time soon.
As for the album’s weirdly suggestive title, it’s taken from a line in another Waller song “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself a Letter,” that serves as the album’s opening track. “A lot of kisses on the bottom / I’ll be glad I got ‘em,” the song goes, referring to XOXOs at the end of a letter and not, as people unfamiliar with the song might assume, an actual human bottom.
McCartney is well aware of his title’s double meaning. Hear Music, his record label, notes in the record’s accompanying press release that he’s “apparently had some fun” with the title. McCartney’s always had a cheeky sense of humor — after all, this is a man who once wrote an entire song about a three-legged dog. But he has a reputation for the overly sentimental (“Silly Love Songs,” anyone?) that can make a Valentine’s Day store display look heartless. Kisses on the Bottom is a terrible title, and it makes it hard to take the album seriously. (The cover art, in which a doe-eyed Macca holds an oversized bouquet of flowers, doesn’t help either).
McCartney’s solo career has had its highs (McCartney, Ram) and its lows (McCartney II), but nearly every album contains one truly great work of songwriting. Kisses on the Bottom is no exception — even if this time, the album’s greatest tunes were all written by others.