2008’s Last Gasp
McCartney, Weiland and West Close Out the Year

We still have a few more weeks to shuffle through, but musically speaking, the year is over.

Oh, sure, there are a couple more interesting releases scheduled, but nothing that will change the geography of the year. There are some live records, a few covers projects (especially Mark Kozelek’s The Finally LP, which I’m looking forward to), some third-rate rap projects, but nothing of much note. My top 10 list is done, including a mammoth selection of honorable mentions. I do believe I’ve heard the best stuff I’m going to hear this year, and I’m already looking ahead to 2009.

Just last week, I wasn’t so sure. It felt like 2008 was getting ready for one last surge, a tidal wave of potential excellence that could change the game. I spent more than $100 on music last Tuesday, and sadly, none of it rose to the challenge. There was one clear (and somewhat unexpected) winner, but I had to navigate a forest of mediocrity to get to it. And now I’m going to replicate that experience for you by saving my favorite until the end.

Yeah, I’m a bastard.

But seriously, given the career resurgence he’s had lately, wouldn’t you expect Paul McCartney to come up with some last-minute gem to rewrite 2008? His last two solo albums, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and Memory Almost Full, were his strongest in many years, leading me to actually anticipate new McCartney product in a way I haven’t since… well, not in my lifetime, honestly. It didn’t even faze me that he was resurrecting his old Fireman moniker, which he used to release two interminably boring lite-techno projects in the ‘90s. This one, he promised, was different – a real pop album, crafted with his fellow Fireman, Youth.

Give him credit for truth in advertising. Electric Arguments is nothing like the other two Fireman discs, and I wonder why, exactly, he thought bringing back the name was a good idea. This is a collection of ditties, little pop-rock constructions with only a few splashes of electronica. Sadly, though, there’s none of the melodic invention and actual songwriting skill of McCartney’s last couple of efforts either, which drives the point home – this isn’t a Paul McCartney album, even though it sometimes sounds like one.

I do sometimes wonder just how deep this identity crisis goes. Does Paul McCartney sometimes forget that he’s Paul McCartney, one of the world’s best living songwriters? I mean, anyone can have an off month or two, but he doesn’t have to make us listen to them, does he? It’s endemic of McCartney’s solo catalog – the gems sit right alongside the tossed-off crap, given equal weight. And sometimes, as here, the crap far outweighs the good stuff. The man just needs some quality control – if he’d released only half as much music in the last 30 years, keeping only the songs that make use of his prodigious gifts, he’d have a nearly flawless solo career behind him.

But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he puts out albums like Electric Arguments. There are a couple of interesting songs here, like the dreamlike “Traveling Light,” but so much of this was clearly written and recorded very quickly. Acoustic ditties like “Two Magpies” and “Light from Your Lighthouse” make their slight melodies work for them, but endless dirges like “Lifelong Passion” just… don’t. “Sing the Changes” starts out like a driving powerhouse, but you soon realize McCartney just hasn’t written anything beyond the main riff, and it doesn’t even deserve its 3:42.

The back half of the album nearly saves it. Here is where Youth takes center stage, crafting near-instrumental soundscapes. The best of these, “Universal Here, Everlasting Now,” floats through several sections, including one with an actual dance beat, before ending in a flourish of piano. Closer “Don’t Stop Running” returns to the tossed-off dirge formula of the earlier tracks, but for some reason, this one works better, with its layered webs of guitar. It’s a downbeat conclusion, nearly ruined by the three minutes of noise tacked on at the end.

But nothing here needed someone like Paul McCartney to create. I know what you’re thinking – can’t the man do what he wants to do? Hasn’t he earned that?

And sure, if he wants to hang out with Youth for a few days and jam out some half-finished songs just for fun, who am I to begrudge him? But this album costs just as much as Chaos and Creation at your local record store, and they’re not even in the same ballpark. It’s his right to make an album like this (and like Driving Rain, and Off the Ground, and Pipes of Peace, and on and on), but the more of these he makes, the less the name Paul McCartney really means to the world of music. And that’s a shame.

You certainly can’t accuse Scott Weiland of not working hard on his second solo album. Happy in Galoshes is a 20-track, 90-minute behemoth spread across two discs, and it explores just as many different styles as his first one, 12-Bar Blues. In fact, listening to this thing, it’s like the sleazy-sezy-cool of Velvet Revolver never happened – this is a full-on ‘90s pop-rock record, sounding often enough like the sequel to Shangri-La-Dee-Da, Weiland’s final album with Stone Temple Pilots.

And like that album, I just don’t remember much of Galoshes 10 minutes after it’s finished playing. I can tell you some impressions, though. The main one is this: Weiland couldn’t want to be David Bowie any more if he tried. The Thin White Duke is all over this thing, especially in Weiland’s vocal style. Some of Galoshes qualifies as glam rock, and while Weiland hasn’t invented a fictional identity for himself and based a stage show around it quite yet, you could draw a straight line between Bowie’s ‘70s stuff and this. (Hell, the man even covers “Fame,” just to drive the point home.)

But I have to give him credit for that, and for the stylistic diversity to be found here. When Stone Temple Pilots first burst onto the scene in 1992, they were the first major non-Seattle band to ape the Seattle sound. Core, their many-times-platinum debut, is still an island in Weiland’s catalog – it’s the only one that sounds like early ‘90s radio. (Okay, the second STP album had hints of it too, but by Tiny Music, they’d excised that entirely, going for more textured pop-rock.)

Unfortunately, while everything on Happy in Galoshes is decent, none of it is extraordinary, and after an hour and a half of it, you’re just suffocated by the mediocrity. I’ve heard it twice now in its entirety, and damned if I can even hum “Blind Confusion,” or “The Man I Didn’t Know,” or virtually any other song here. The only one that really sticks in the memory is “Beautiful Day,” more for its phenomenal production than its melody. The rest? Pleasant while it’s playing, utterly forgettable five minutes later.

Galsohes creaks to a close with the jaunty “Arch Angel,” but then Weiland drags himself across the finish line with a lengthy rendition of the ‘70s hymn “Be Not Afraid.” (This is the “special secret song” the packaging promises.) I guess we’re supposed to be taken with the idea that Weiland, whose struggles with drugs and the law are constant tabloid fodder, is singing this old song of faith, but the result is just boring and painful.

Given its length and breadth, it’s tempting to consider Happy in Galoshes Weiland’s defining musical statement. But it’s mostly devoid of personality, and drowned in sub-par melodies – he’s definitely done better than this. After listening to this twice, I’m more likely to reach for a Velvet Revolver album, or even an STP disc, than Weiland’s opus again. The man just needs good collaborators to spark off of – without Slash, Duff, Izzy, or the DeLeo brothers, his music is much less interesting than it should be.

Which leaves the big winner of the week, and if I had to lay odds walking into the record store on Tuesday, I wouldn’t have guessed it. But 808s and Heartbreak, the new Kanye West album, is surprisingly good.

I shouldn’t have been too shocked, though. A couple of years ago, I gave West’s second album, Late Registration, very high marks – it was the hip-hop Sgt. Pepper, a collaboration with Jon Brion that set West’s rhymes to a mix of organic and electronic instruments I’ve never heard on a rap album before. His follow-up, last year’s Graduation, was a step down, but its synth beds and out-of-the-ordinary beats were still pretty cool. But this… 808s and Heartbreak is totally out of left field, and establishes West as one of the most interesting new artists in his particular scene.

It’s no secret Mr. West has had a bad year. In addition to watching a long-term relationship evaporate, he lost his mother, Donda, after complications from cosmetic surgery. He’s clearly in a dark and lonely place, and his album is moody, chilling and bleak. It also contains virtually no rapping, save for a couple of guest spots. Instead, West confined himself to the distinctive tones of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, and sang every song through an Auto-Tune vocoder.

The Auto-Tune has come a long way since the days of Cher’s godawful “Believe,” but it’s still an acquired taste. I can only take so much of T-Pain’s work, and often, the Auto-Tune is used to mask the fact that its user just can’t sing. But here, it works beautifully. West, quite frankly, can’t sing very well, but the fragility in his limited voice comes through, even with the vocoder on full blast. And I’ve never heard it used on songs like these before.

Take the first single, “Love Lockdown.” At its heart, this is a blues song, a pain-filled lament. But it’s a new kind of blues – the bass is a constant thump, the tribal drums provide shading instead of a beat, and the piano is surprisingly sparse. The center of the song is West’s lonely robot voice, and it works brilliantly. It’s the most unlikely pop hit of the year. It’s followed directly by “Paranoid,” a song that could have been taken right out of Prince’s 1982 setlist. It is the album’s most upbeat number, and it sounds like nothing else out there right now.

The album’s first half is shrouded in darkness, West moving from one tale of lost love to another – it’s like the synth-pop Blood on the Tracks. The record opens with its bleakest number, the six-minute “Say You Will.” Over a simple tonal beat and a bed of shuddering synths, West pulls out his first spine-tingling melody, and though he keeps this one going a bit too long, it sets the mood. “Welcome to Heartbreak” is a minor-key march about the difference between success and happiness, and “Heartless” (the poppiest thing in the first half) flirts with rap while exploring loneliness.

The first five tracks are a flawless statement of purpose, and once they’re out of the way, West lightens things up a notch. The aforementioned “Paranoid” leads into the almost-fun “Robocop,” but before long “Street Lights” has brought back the tribal drums and the dark mood. A highlight of the album, “Street Lights” is like nothing else I have heard this year – a pitch-black dirge with some heavenly backing vocals. The rest of 808s is bleak and slow and stark. The album ends with “Coldest Winter,” a song dedicated to West’s mother, and a tacked-on, six-minute stream-of-consciousness live recording that sounds somehow colder and farther away than anything else here.

Once again, West has surprised me by making an album I can’t classify. I suppose this is pop music, but it’s oceans away from the club-ready pop music West has made in the past. This is a daring release – I haven’t heard anything this musically adventurous and simultaneously emotionally haunted from a major, top-selling artist in a long time. I doubt this is a new musical direction for West. More likely, this album was therapy, a way to channel his feelings of loss and loneliness into his art. And it is art. 808s and Heartbreak is a striking, instantly memorable album from a man who is turning out to be a singular artist, a standout in his field. I can’t wait to hear where he goes next.

As for 2008, well, it’s not going anywhere next. I have four columns left to write – one about a reissue, one about a couple of live box sets, and then a top 10 list and Fifty Second Week. And then we’re into Year Nine, ready or not.

Next week, Darn Floor – Big Bite. Never heard of it? You will.

See you in line Tuesday morning.