Growing old gracefully can be a challenge for anyone. It can be even more difficult for pop stars — a virtual minefield of embarrassing outfits, age-inappropriate duets, plastic surgery disasters and trend-hopping musical makeovers. But Paul McCartney and Paul Simon are here to show us that there is another way. Two other ways, in fact, based on the approaches the 76-year-old masters have taken with their respective (and simultaneously released) new albums Egypt Station and In the Blue Light.
For McCartney, the answer is simple: Don’t fix what hasn’t broken for more than half a century. On his 17th solo studio release Egypt Station, the former Beatle wisely sticks to his guns and does what he’s always done best: Craft straightforward, hooky pop-rock singles and romantic ballads. Can any of them hold a candle to his ’60s and ’70s classics (or even his ’80s and ’90s standouts)? Of course not. Even the man himself likely knows that. But even though chunky little rockers like Come On To Me, Fuh You and Caesar Rock won’t knock Live and Let Die out of your playlist, they’re decent enough to earn a spot in the rotation for the next while. And even if nobody’s going to get misty and sing along when he plays ballads like I Don’t Know and Despite Repeated Warnings on his latest tour, it’s nice to know that after all these years, he still just wants to hold your hand. Another point in his favour: While I’ve always thought Macca is hit-and-miss as a lyricist — for every Yesterday and Hey Jude, there’s a line like Big Barn Bed‘s: “Sleeping on a pillow, weeping on a willow, leaping armadillo, yeah” — these cuts seem reasonably inspired and clunker-free, while retaining his usual light-hearted, playful tone. Factor in the fat-free arrangements, Greg Kurstin‘s tasteful production and the band’s crisp performances, and you’ve got a disc that’s every bit as good as anything Macca has done in the past couple of decades. And at this stage of the game, good is plenty good enough.
Unlike Macca, Simon is more than willing to change his tune. And his tunes. On his 14th studio effort In the Blue Light, the folk-rock icon revisits and retools 10 lesser-known cuts from various albums dating back to the ’70s. Simon has said he wanted to take another run at some songs that were “were almost right, or were odd enough to be overlooked the first time around.” But he’s also said he may be “finished” writing songs. And he’s currently on what is billed as a farewell tour. So you do the math. Whatever Simon’s motive, however, his execution is near-flawless. Aided and abetted by longtime producer Roy Halee, instrumental ensemble yMusic, guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and The National’s Bryce Dessner, Simon doesn’t just replay these numbers — he rebuilds them from the ground up with jazzier instrumentation, sparser arrangements and even updated lyrics. One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is set to New Orleans blues laced with woozy horns and grumbled background vocals. Rhythm of the Saints’ Can’t Run But moves swiftly to a tense avant-classical string arrangement from Dessner. One-Trick Pony‘s How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns becomes a torchy piano ballad. Pigs, Sheep and Wolves from 2000’s You’re the One jauntily bumps and grinds to a Dixieland jazz backdrop. And Darling Lorraine, also from You’re the One — which contributes four songs to the set — gently sways to lilting guitars. At times reminiscent of Randy Newman, In the Blue Light is more often wistful and reflective than celebratory. But it certainly casts some of Simon’s neglected gems in a new light. And it sure beats a hip-hop remix of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover featuring Cardi B.