Somewhere within Paul McCartney lies one of the surviving Beatles, the creator of hit-or-miss Wings, a folk solo-musician and — apparently — The Fireman. It seems “tricky McCartney” has actually been the man lurking behind The Fireman projects since the early ’90s. Along with producer Youth (n? Martin Glover), McCartney creates a combination of electronic experimentation and more of McCartney’s expected genre-play on the band’s third album. But Electric Arguments sounds nothing like the various incarnations McCartney listeners have come to know over the years and, because of this, is great at moments, terrible at others and as a whole just a pleasing — but somewhat forgettable — listen.
The duo recorded Electric Arguments over a mere 13 days, and it feels like it — both good and bad. The ideas on this record are scattered and varying, which makes it feel less cohesive but also more exciting as a whole. Moreover, some of these songs could use a bit of polish (especially coming from a producer known for his influential work in electronic music), though McCartney does shine with this project and others when he sticks to the simple-sounding — often misleadingly so — pop-rock that made him famous.
And those are the finest moments on Electric Arguments. It’s not as if The Fireman’s early electronic experiments aren’t worth hearing, but this album is a change of character for the duo, and it works. It’s not just an electronic album — in fact it mostly isn’t — and despite McCartney’s eclectic interests and multi-instrumental skills, his songwriting and voice are both better suited for the bright, colorful moments of Electric Arguments than the more haunting ones.
This is why The Fireman starts this disc with a bang. Early press attention-grabber and album opener “Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight” mixes shredding blues-rock with McCartney’s guttural growl. It’s at once biting and charming and ends with Tom Waits-styled talk-singing that distances the track even more from McCartney’s lighter (and more well known) projects. While this “single” isn’t completely representative of what follows, it certainly indicates McCartney hasn’t written another “Live and Let Die.”
Next come a folk ditty, “Two Magpies,” and then a contender for the most worthy moment of Electric Arguments, “Sing the Changes.” Both tracks are short and sweet, but “Sing the Changes” plays repetitive lyrics with simple vocal variations over a heaven-reaching melody and backing keens from McCartney. The Brit’s voice has aged beautifully, as is apparent on this project’s dirtier moments, because he can sound strained and smoky when he wants while still out-singing most pop musicians. Not to mention he can certainly write a cooler tune.
Another rocker, “Highway,” follows in good form, as does the warmly pastoral “Light From Your Lighthouse,” and then Electric Arguments shifts in style. Since The Fireman has always been a vehicle for McCartney’s dabbling in a genre somewhat foreign to him, it’s easy to be overly forgiving of the album’s final tracks. And they’re not bad as much as somewhat boring. But to close an album that starts off so memorably with tracks that just aren’t that entertaining seems like a poor production choice, and it really is the biggest flaw of Electric Arguments.
These final songs represent an abrupt shift from the sunny musicality of the album’s first half to the darker ambient sounds of its conclusion. While this dichotomy may be intentional and intelligently conceived, it doesn’t necessarily work. “Lifelong Passion” and “Universal Here, Everlasting Now” both recall Brian Eno, an ever-relevant icon in the world of electronic music, but aren’t as beautiful or illuminating as the art-rocker’s best work. And the trudging, cumbersome “Don’t Stop Running” puts a halt to any momentum Electric Arguments builds up early on. The 10-minute New Age prog-rocker glides along beautifully but gets old long before it wraps up with white noise and sci-fi synths.
Regardless of whether these more traditional The Fireman tracks match the quality of those more akin to the work of traditional Paul McCartney, they still form an interesting and elegant trip into ambient music. Sure, it’s not Brian Eno’s “1/1” or The Beatles’ “My Darling,” but sitting between those two styles serves Electric Arguments well. Whether this album gets more than a few spins will depend on whether or not avid McCartney fans are willing to indulge his less vanilla passions and more mainstream listeners can appreciate the concept of The Fireman as much as the duo’s newer pop offerings.
3 stars out of 5