Granted, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have enough devoted fans each to fill a continent. So perhaps the most striking thing about their respective new albums — McCartney’s Off The Ground and Jagger’s Wandering Spirit — is that both sound determined to prove that, even though their AARP cards are in the mail, they can still rip this joint here, there, and everywhere. ”I don’t need anybody to tell me how to be right,” shouts the usually mild-mannered Macca on the blushingly rude ”Get Out of My Way.” Meanwhile, Jagger’s hyperventilating ”Wired All Night” finds Old Liver Lips growling that he’s ”gonna sharpen my nails… I’m as hard as a brick.” Welcome to rock & roll, middle-age-crazy style.
Of course, these first mates of the British Invasion have more to be concerned about than just crow’s feet. Take Jagger: While the Stones gathered moss during the 1980s, Mick test-ballooned two solo albums and saw them flop about as badly as all the movies he’s acted in. Couple that with his musical life partner, Keith Richards, starting to get a little on the side with his solo albums, and you could feel an identity crisis, baby, standing in the shadows.
But there’s no sign of that here. Instead of downplaying his Stonesness, as he did on the earlier albums, the Jagger of Wandering Spirit embraces it and friskily plays to his idiosyncratic strengths. A little ”Miss You” soul falsetto on ”Sweet Thing,” a taste of ”When the Whip Comes Down” rock decadence on ”Put Me in the Trash,” and a bit of ”Prodigal Son” blues on the title track — all in all, the associations in these mostly clever songs work to Mick’s strutting advantage. Heck, he even throws in a ”Dead Flowers”-like country twanger, ”Evening Gown,” that, with its weepy steel guitar, could land him on Nashville Now.
McCartney’s newest comes on the heels of several disappointing studio albums, his tepidly received Liverpool Oratorio, and one bomb of a film (1984’s Give My Regards to Broad Street). Off the Ground tries very hard to please please us with Fab Four references — a ”Penny Lane” trumpet on ”Mistress and Maid,” an eerie ”Strawberry Fields” keyboard on ”I Owe It All To You,” to name but two — yet, unlike Jagger, the more McCartney invokes his old memories, the paler his work becomes.
He still shows flashes of inspired composition — ”Hope of Deliverance” sports an undeniably addictive melody — and his bass playing throughout is, as always, almost offhandedly superb. But a great tunesmith like McCartney knows that pop songs rise and fall on both form and content. While many of the tracks here (”Peace in the Neighbourhood,” ”C’Mon People,” the title song) all carry admirable, uplifting messages, they simply can’t fly under the weight of dreadfully sorry clichés (”I was at the center of a love vibration,” ”I’m trying to lay it on the line”) and overwrought images (”Golden earth girl female animal sings to the wind resting at sunset in a mossy nest”). McCartney may be trying to get back to where he once belonged, but Off the Ground only shows that he’s still coming up short. Spirit: B+ Ground: C-