Paul McCartney has nothing to gain from working. Having already lorded over one of rock & roll's most definitive catalogs, the 71-year-old icon could have simply spent his autumn years rearranging jazz standards (as he did on 2012's Kisses on the Bottom), or worse, cranking out an endless stream of tired Beatles simulacra. Instead, he's jamming with the surviving members of Nirvana (which happened earlier this year) and recruiting a small army of visionaries to help craft his 16th solo album.
That willingness to dabble apparently appeals to producer Mark Ronson, who lends both the title track and the loping ''Alligator'' a past-is-future swagger. Other partners leave their mark as well: Adele knob-twiddler Paul Epworth adds stately cinematic swoop to opener ''Save Us,'' Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon) brings a clean minimalism to the humming ''Hosanna,'' and Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer Sir George, gives muscular heft to the fuzzy ''Appreciate.''
McCartney earns points just for seeking out new ideas, but New hangs on the strength of the songs. He's got formidable storytelling chops (which especially inform the dreamy ''On My Way to Work''), but he is also smart enough to get out of the way of a bombastic hook, as on the punchy ''I Can Bet.'' New is as apt an album title as you'll find: Not only does it announce McCartney's first batch of original songs in six years, it also celebrates the idea that pop music can still invigorate, inspire, and surprise even if you had a hand in inventing it. A-