Taking a Closer Look at Paul McCartney’s Sneaky Great Late-Period Album ‘Chaos and Creation in the Backyard’

Paul McCartney could easily rest on his estimable catalog if he wished, occasionally surfacing to play shows based on his Beatles, Wings, and solo hits. But Macca is as prolific as he is talented, which means we regularly get new releases from him at a time when most musicians are focused on nostalgia. That’s good news for us, or else we might never have heard late-period wonders like Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, a 2005 gem of an album.

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Chaos and Creation in the Backyard might be a mouthful of a title, but the sounds contained on the album are smooth and wondrous. Let’s take a look back at how McCartney made the album with the help of an occasionally confrontational producer.

The Difficulties of Creation

Throughout his post-Beatles career, McCartney has often benefited from working with a strong collaborator. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule—standout records like Ram and Band on the Run came from McCartney doing things mostly himself, after all. Folks like Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, and Michael Jackson helped him raise his game.

With those examples, McCartney often engaged in back-and-forth songwriting sessions, much like what he did with John Lennon in The Beatles. Lennon also served as a kind of quality control officer for McCartney’s songs, refusing to allow his partner to take the easy way out. (Think of how a song like “Drive My Car” only happened because Lennon dismissed McCartney’s initial drafts for not being up to snuff.)

That’s the role Nigel Godrich played on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. The producer had made a name for himself producing highly acclaimed albums from diverse artists such as Oasis and Beck. McCartney decided Godrich was the perfect guy for the job, at least until he started working with him.

“There were some tense moments making the album,” McCartney remembered in an interview. “Nigel wasn’t sycophantic; he said from the off, ‘I warn you, I know what I like.’ There was some heated discussion. There’s a song called ‘Riding to Vanity Fair’ where we got down to [snarls] ‘I like it!,’ ‘I don’t like it!,’ ‘Well I like it!’ But then I realised there’s no point in charging him down like that; I should listen. We actually moved on to why he didn’t like it—‘The first line’s good, but after that …’ ‘Oh, how about this then?’

Godrich also pressed McCartney to play most of the instruments himself, instead of relying on his touring band as he had originally intended. That decision led to less reliance on throwback rock and roll tracks, which often dot McCartney’s albums. Instead, he created sophisticated pop songs that often skewed towards melancholy. That proved to be the key, as it seemed to fit where his head was at as a songwriter.

Embracing the Chaos

It’s tempting to look at what was going on in McCartney’s personal life for clues to the tone of the album. He was in the midst of his second marriage, one which crumbled just a year after the album was released. Whether problems with Heather Mills factored into the record is impossible to say. The only track that lets some animosity bubble to the surface is “Riding to Vanity Fair.”

Many of the songs on the album actually feature lyrics that look to love as an antidote of sorts. But the autumnal feel of the music on tracks like “How Kind of You,” “At the Mercy,” and “Anyway” keeps those words from feeling too optimistic. Even openly romantic songs like “Follow Me” and “This Never Happened Before” admit some of the darkness to throw the light into better relief.

Godrich’s insistence on McCartney digging deep with his songwriting pays off time and again. Opening track “Fine Line,” one of the few somewhat uptempo songs, settles into a unmistakable feeling of unease, even as it’s ladled with hooks. “English Tea” finds the artist poking some fun at his image as that most British of musicians.

Best of all is “Jenny Wren,” quite simply one of the best songs of the man’s career, as he delivers a character sketch with every bit the poignancy and ache of “Eleanor Rigby.” On top of that, the album makes for one of the smoothest listens in his entire career, as it sustains a vibe and mood without distracting deviations.

Chaos and Creation in the Backward brought some of the best reviews of the ex-Beatle’s career. Since albums aren’t fetishized in post-millennial days like they were back in the heyday of rock, the album has fallen below the radar of all but the most passionate Paul McCartney fans. It needs to be appreciated more, because it’s an example of how the man rose to the occasion when his work was questioned and challenged by a producer more exacting than even the harshest critic.

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Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images

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