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Paul McCartney’s ‘NEW’: The Jew-ish Beatle’s Bar Mitzvah Album

He can still give you earworms and warm fuzzy retro feelings. But at 71, is Macca now finally a man?

David Yaffe
October 25, 2013
Paul McCartney(Margarita Korol)
Paul McCartney(Margarita Korol)

The title track of Paul McCartney’s NEW, his 16th solo studio album, has been saturating computers everywhere these days, and if Macca’s voice sounds giddy, it’s because he knows he’s reeled in a big one. If you have watched a YouTube video in the past few weeks, you have probably heard a fragment of the album’s title track. Paul’s reason for feeling renewal and rebirth, he has said, is his recent marriage to Nancy Shevell, a 51-year-old Jewess 20 years his junior. When McCartney’s marriage to Shevell was first announced, cyberspace was abuzz with the rumor that Sir Paul was going to join the faith of Nancy’s fathers, which was also the faith of his first wife Linda Eastman’s fathers, and the fathers of his one-time fiancée Jane Asher. Headlines like “Got to get Jew into my life” invariably followed.

The Jews may have lost Bob Dylan to Christianity for a few years, but could the goyim lose McCartney for good? It seems possible that, between a mega tour of epic proportions, and writing and recording these songs—a nuanced and baroque process involving a think-tank of four producers including Amy Winehouse, hipster knob twirler Mark Ronson, and Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer Sir George—that circumcision may not be the first thing on McCartney’s mind. Being a Jew—it’s one of those things you can get to later. When McCartney married Linda Eastman in 1969, as a rebound from John who (in effect) left him for Yoko, everyone noticed that Lennon’s new wife was Japanese, but most people didn’t notice that Eastman, a freethinking blonde photographer and groupie (who, after her first encounter with Paulie, bragged in a letter that she had “bagged a Beatle”), was Jewish. There was no talk of conversion, although Paul did say in interviews that, per matrilineal rabbinical law, his children with Linda were Jewish: Their daughter, the fashion designer Stella McCartney, appears to consider herself Jewish, although she did get married in a church.

Even after enduring the deaths of John, George, and Linda, and after having a failed second marriage, the greatest homage McCartney can offer to falling in love yet again (and where would Paul albums be without silly love songs?) is remembering “when we were new.” When you’re 71 and you’ve seen so much, Paul’s highest praise is a kind of clean slate. But is that all one is looking for so late in the journey? Most 13-year-old boys walk out of their bar mitzvahs the same twerps they were when they walked in. But most mortals walk into their 70s feeling old. Tragedians from Athens to Jerusalem had another way of looking at it. The Greeks, from Aeschylus, had a term for it: “pathei mathos,” or learning through suffering. (The Jews had a name for it, too: Job.)

Yet the astonishing thing about NEW is that his seemingly frivolous metaphor can have a way of working. Paulie can still give you earworms—super-durable pop gems that stick in your brains, sometimes against your will. The title track is a case in point, scaling up and down major and relative minor scales, all in simple triads, just like “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” and so many others; they somehow fit so perfectly, sound so right. Who among us would not like to preserve our youth and beauty forever? What’s the alternative? Wisdom? Today I am a man, say the adolescents who have cut a covenant with God, declaring not a faith but a trust, even if that god seems lost in the shadows. But while we’re alive, we still have music; the right kind of pop ditty could mean as much to us as The Goldberg Variations, which was, after all, written to cure Herr Goldberg’s insomnia. We need music to lull us to sleep, too, or to keep us going. McCartney is so popular, he got into the Guinness Book of World Records for it.

But McCartney is more than just another hugely successful rock star. A few years ago, he performed at the Obama White House to accept an award named for George Gershwin, who also had a knack, with his brother Ira, of cranking out the hits, but so much more, too. So, it may be with this album, without ceremony, that Paul may declare himself to be a man, even though he still sounds quite needy. As he has been going around the world belting out Beatles songs with what voice he has left—which sounds lovely, authentic, and textured on this album—he feels overwhelmed with holding up to the Fab Four, and even his most sympathetic listeners from McCartney (1970) onward tend to be fixated on the white elephant—or White Album—in the room. A great McCartney solo song (“Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Back Seat of my Car,” “Uncle Albert,” “Junior’s Farm,” and so on) is said (or even thought) to be Beatle-worthy.

Most of my students, who were born in the early ’90s, love the Beatles, probably because their parents and grandparents loved them, too; people will still love The Beatles long after we’ve all left this earth. Paulie goes forth and does his best anyway, and sometimes the producers really do bring out newness. “Queenie Eye,” co-written with producer Paul Epworth, sounds like a schoolyard taunt with an almost endless sonic toolbox, and rhymes, in a construction that Eminem might like, “rags and riches” to “dogs and bitches.” This album asks for lots of saving—save our love, save us, save me. “Save Us,” the opening track, sounds like the fast part of “Live and Let Die,” except that instead of espionage, this car chase is an attempt to escape an all too palpable vulnerability. “In the heat of battle, you’ve got something that’ll save us.” Please, he is imploring his younger wife, do something to preserve our frothy youth.

He sometimes asks these things with a straight face, as on “Looking at Her,” where he contrasts a sweet boyish falsetto, admiring a girl (not really a woman): “She’s good. She fine. She’s so refined.” Then this twee ditty moves into chaos. “But me, I’m losing my mind.” The song ends on the madness, yet, even if you are compelled by the sonic psychosis, you never really worry about the guy singing this song. “On My Way to Work” harkens back to pre-Beatle teenage days of riding a bus to work and reading a girlie magazine. Yet the sounds on this album stay fresh without sounding trendy. Compare the sonic quality of these tracks to his ’80s work—all with thudding echo chamber drums and synths—and it would seem that, even as the record industry is falling apart, we appear to be entering a golden age for production. “Alligator,” produced by Mark Ronson, brimming with delicious hooks, finds McCartney engaging in some sleight-of-hand wordplay. He’s yearning, as usual, for someone he can come home to, and with whom he could “have a conversation not too deep.” This does not sound like a promising J-Date profile. And yet the song percolates, and he finds his trope:

I want someone who can save me
When I come home from the zoo
I need somebody who’s a sweet communicator
I can give my alligator to

This all scans so well, that the logic goes out the window. It’s all clearly a joke, until this tough, Scouse rogue turns to a falsetto, and we have McCartney, a septuagenarian boy, asking:

Could you be that person for me?
Would you feel right setting me free?
Could you dare to find my key?

With these lines, the rock ’n’ roll rumble turns to treacly ballad. He’s joking, sort of, but then he’s not. Is the alligator a metaphor who needs to be liberated from the swamp, then somehow tamed and taken to a zoo? Or is he unleashing his libido from the pre-Linda days, when girls lined up for a shag with the Cute Beatle?

Slightly past the chronology of “On My Way to Work,” “Early Days,” is not just the kind of revisiting of The Beatles that he periodically makes—as on “The Songs We Were Singing” from Flaming Pie (1995)—but as a bitchy rejoinder to anyone who claims to know his own past better than he does. In a recent interview, he explained the song: “It’s just this idea of people robbing your history from you, that it’s not just me but in my case it started off with the case of ‘they can’t take it away from me because I lived through those early days. I was there.’ ”

Sir Paul, remember your Gershwin award? “They can’t take that away from me,” wrote Ira. So classy, where his seems more whiny and petty:

Now everybody seems to have there own opinion
Who did this and who did that
But as for me I don’t see how they can remember
When they weren’t where it was at

Paul, your mythology is all yours. That’s partly why we keep coming back to you. You are the only non-Ringo component of the greatest show on earth that anyone who is still alive from those days can remember. That’s why people are paying $500-plus to see you do your best to approximate your younger self. The Beatles broke up when our boy was 27, and he has spent subsequent years finding new ways to remind us that he was really one of those four guys.

Sir Paul can sometimes be at his best settling old scores. Even if “Early Days” is just an OK McCartney song, there is no doubt that petty resentments can make for the best rock ’n’ roll, whether you’re Dylan or Elvis Costello or the McCartney of “Too Many People,” which gave offense to John Lennon shortly after the Beatle-pocalypse. McCartney has the right to be as immature as he wants. He is singing rock ’n’ roll, after all.

And yet, whether or not he is actually becoming a Jew, he might still find a way to show that he is, even in the most secular and materialist sense, becoming a man. For Linda, he championed animal rights. For his second wife Heather Mills, he fought to eliminate land mines. If wife number three has a cause for Paul to embrace, beyond sharing her Judaism, it could be that he can still find, on “Everybody Out There,” a message to leave this earth a better place than when we entered it. Fat chance, you might say, but our Paulie has not given up:

There but for the grace of God go you and I
We’re the brightest objects in the sky
There but for the grace of God go you and I
Do some good before you say goodbye

We Jews have a name for what he is describing: mitzvot.


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David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. He is currently at work on a musical memoir titled Seemed Like the Real Thing.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack: