Album Review: “Driving Rain” — Paul McCartney (2001)

Paul McCartney’s Driving Rain is a problematic but intriguing record, probably the least-regarded of his much praised “later career rebirth” (which arguably began with 1997’s Flaming Pie and continued through 2013’s New). Whereas Flaming Pie was a strong artistic statement that seemed to invoke all the classic McCartney songcraft tropes to great effect, 2001’s Driving Rain seems dour, inward looking, contemplative, struggling to find a footing. As an artistic response to the 1998 death of his longtime love, partner, and wife Linda, and his burgeoning relationship with (and eventual contentious divorce from) Heather Mills, it would be nigh-impossible to argue against the minor-key prevalence throughout the record.

After the triumph of Flaming Pie and the tragic loss of Linda, Paul took some time off to grieve. He did some work in the studio in late 1998 and 1999, mostly for the Working Classical project. In March of 1999 he gathered a solid group of musical buddies to record the excellent covers album Run Devil Run. By February of 2001 he bunkered down in The Henson Studios in Los Angeles for the Driving Rain sessions. They continued until early March, and reconvened in June (where he also recorded the theme song to the 2001 film “Vanilla Sky”). In the fall of 2001 Paul wrote “Freedom” as a response to the attacks on September 11th, and recorded it live on October 20th at The Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden (with a studio vocal mixed over the live backing track). It barely made it onto the album release on November 12th.

The album was a commercial disappointment, selling about 650,000 copies worldwide (Flaming Pie had outsold that in the USA alone in 1997). It charted at #26 in the US, #46 in the UK, and only made the Top 20 in Denmark and Italy. “Freedom” was released as a single (with “From A Lover To A Friend”) but didn’t make much of an impact. Reviews were fairly positive though, and it was clear that McCartney was well on the trajectory of his career upswing that started with Flaming Pie and continued with his 1999 covers album Run Devil Run.

Driving Rain is a solid and often engaging record from Paul McCartney, but — to pinch a concept from Led Zeppelin — this is his “shadow and light” album. There’s the permeating darkness of Linda McCartney’s death still hanging over the more melancholy pieces, while there’s a sense of positivity and genuine hope emanating from his new love in Heather Mills. Driving Rain is aptly named, as it conjures up imagery of an artist taking shelter from the deluge via active engagement and creation. It is Paul at his most emotionally vulnerable and honest.

In some ways the album reminds me a bit of Wings’s Wild Life — not so much in terms of the quality of songwriting but rather in the patchwork construction of each track. The songs feel scattershot, a bit manic and overly expressive before pulling back and engaging in another fleeting emotional state. There’s real punchyness here, a raw chaos revealing all the loose stitches of the human heart. It’s more emotionally genuine than Paul has ever felt on record before.

If there’s a major criticism to be made — and there is — it’s that the album is a crushing sense of homogeneity to it. There’s a disheartening sense of sameness throughout the record that goes against McCartney’s usual stylistic variances. Whether this is a positive or negative is up to the fan or listener, but after a while it felt like the songs were bleeding into each other without much variety. Compelling this issue is a really flat, compressed-sounding production. The lack of dynamic range here robs many of these songs of their fullness, cramming them into a shallow soundstage that feels boxy and unfulfilling. A complete remix would be most welcome here.

The result is an album that rarely finds itself at the top of most McCartney fans’ favorite albums, and the album eventually outstays its welcome by going on far longer than it needs to. Some have criticized the record as being too “impenetrable” — as much as you can apply that label to a songwriter well-known for his reliable and often impeccable pop-melodic craftsmanship. But this is far, far from “Paul going prog”. This is Paul turning far more inward than he has ever gone on a single album. It’s more complex and jarring but never discordant.

The album opens well with “Lonely Road”, a shuffling, distorted rocker that sets the tone for the record well. It’s moody, confused, and effective. When Paul finishes “From A Lover To A Friend” with a pleading delivery of “Let me love again”, you can see raindrops like tears sliding down the studio windows. The complex minor key noodling of “She’s Given Up Talking”, a moody piece about a girl who cannot find her voice outside of the house, isn’t quite like anything Paul’s done before. It’s haunting and musically scattershot, the type of arresting material that McCartney hasn’t necessarily engaged in throughout his career, but does so here with skill and command.

The title track is probably the most upbeat track on the album, an ode to his new love, and even with McCartney’s pop sensibilities in full effect, there’s an air of vulnerability to the proceedings. More than just an expression of love, “Driving Rain” is almost a plea for sunshine throughout the storm. “I Do” shouts out to Linda in the darkness, begging her to understand that while he is moving on with life, while he has found sunshine even though their days together have ended, that he wants her to always remember that he still loves her.

“Tiny Bubble” is a middling track; musically it doesn’t seem to do anything that interesting. Lyrically Paul advocates looking internally for truth and understanding, instead of trying to find it somewhere outside in the raging thunderstorm, where it will never be found. “Magic” is a shuffling minor-key reflection about that one magical moment when two like-minded souls meet, and if not for the whip-sharp timing of that one moment, their connection never would have existed. This is a touching song, sad but ultimately uplifting and grateful for that one moment that led to 30 years of love and companionship. It’s a wonderful track, simple and sincere. I find the outro a bit curious and self-indulgent, but the song has earned it.

Unfortunately the next several songs derail the album’s momentum. “Your Way” is a puzzling track, delving into surrendering into the healing love of a new partner. It’s a serviceable song but it feels lesser compared to much of the album. The same can be said for the quizzical “Spinning on an Axis”, featuring a strong vocal performance from McCartney but nothing else to recommend for it. “About You” is his reassurance to Mills, about how she empowers him daily with her strength, but the song isn’t anything much.

The subject matter of “Heather” speaks for itself, an engaging tune that features two and a half minutes of a well-structured and harmonically-pleasing instrumental, leading into ten lines Paul sings in defense (or in celebration) of his love for the title character. And it’s almost fitting that “Back In The Sunshine” comes late in an album that is almost defined by its rainy-day contemplation. The song is entirely filler but the piano work really stands out here. “Your Loving Flame” starts out engaging enough with McCartney really indulging his pop-melodic sensitivities in the opening verses, but the song seems to devolve in the chorus into more of that “sameness” described above. It almost works, but ultimately it leaves the listener indifferent.

The Eastern-tinged melodies “Riding into Jaipur” elevate what is otherwise a simple, straightforward piece into a lush, hypnotic number. After the glut of flat songs that preceded this track, “Riding into Jaipur” is a welcome and refreshing tonic. Paul composed its melodic foundation on a travel guitar while in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and the instrument’s almost sitar-like tones lent themselves well to the track. This leads into the ten-minute jam piece of “Rinse The Raindrops”, which features two verses of lyrics and then a whole lot of in-studio jamming. There’s a really strong 3 minute song in here. The rest is Paul in experimental territory, and if it weren’t for the purposes for reviewing the album as a whole, I wouldn’t bother with the entirety of the track. It does have some fascinating moments, even if the whole is decisively less than the sum of its parts. Still, it’s an ambitious move, striving for something different instead of presenting more of the mundane.

The album’s final “hidden” track is of course “Freedom”, McCartney’s response to the events of 9/11. It’s anthemic and rousing and maudlin, but well-intentioned. I’ll just leave it at that.

Driving Rain can be called a lot of things, but what it isn’t is a predictable record from Paul McCartney. He dives headlong into personal turmoil and deeply explores it, perhaps resulting in a record that has many strengths and compelling elements, but like many emotional excursions goes on for a bit too long. The album is hampered by its disappointing production values, that pervasive musical “sameness” and sharply limited compression. The result is a mostly good record that, with some judicious pruning of weaker material and a complete audio remixing, could very well be a great one.