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Pop reviews — week of Oct. 27

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New

Paul McCartney

“We put a lot of energy and effort into making this album,” Paul McCartney writes in the liner notes accompanying New, his first album of new material in six years. “Hard work? No, not at all. We don’t work music. We play it!”

Truer words were rarely spoken, at least for McCartney, who at 71 continues to make optimistic music that seems to flow out of him effortlessly. On New, he worked with young producers Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth, and Giles Martin (son of George), all of whom add tasteful contemporary touches while having the good sense not to get in the way of Macca’s way with a melody.

As with last year’s one-off collaboration with the surviving members of Nirvana, the singing bass player sounds energized. Which is not to say that many of the unfailingly agreeable, intelligently crafted songs on New will stick with you for very long, engaging as they are.

The exception that proves the rule is Early Days, a stripped-down remembrance in which Macca gets feisty about people who pretend to know his story better than he does himself. Reaching for high notes, he allows us to hear the strain in his voice as he sings about the “many times I had to change the pain to laughter,” giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be the Beatle everyone expects to be cheerful all the time.

— Dan DeLuca

Philadelphia Inquirer

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

This absorbing novel begins when an ordinary excursion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother erupts in a sudden act of violence. In the mayhem that follows, Decker’s mother is killed and he somehow picks up and walks away with a priceless piece of artwork from the 1600s, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. The scene unfolds slowly in harrowing detail and sets in motion nearly every subsequent event.

Suddenly motherless, Decker’s quiet life becomes tumultuous. He is taken in by his friend’s wealthy and kind but distant family, and later goes to live with his estranged, gambling-addicted father and his cocktail waitress girlfriend on the outskirts of Las Vegas. There he meets Boris, a charming but unhinged expat with Ukrainian and Russian roots who becomes his best friend, introducing Decker to a larger world via both Russian novels and drugs.

As he grows older, he continues to secretly protect the painting, both as a work of beauty he has grown to cherish and as the only link to life before the tragedy. Establishing himself as an antiques dealer back in New York as an adult, Decker strives for a calm life, but soon Boris re-emerges and everything he thought was in his past comes back in full force to haunt him.

Tartt, in her third novel after The Secret History and The Little Friend, paints the many different strata of life that Decker floats through with vivid detail, including the dissolute Vegas gambling scene, high-society Manhattan, the world of antique furniture dealing and shady underworld art dens.

The author trains an acute eye on the moral ambiguity of all of her characters: Decker, for example, can be deeply sympathetic but also proves capable of shocking acts.

The painting The Goldfinch, which in reality hangs in The Hague in the Netherlands, portrays a delicate bird chained permanently to a perch, looking toward the viewer with solemn dignity, and Tartt’s characters wrestle with the question of whether they are any freer than the finch, or just as imprisoned by their own unreliable hearts or fate.

— Mae Anderson

Associated Press

To All The Girls …

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson’s To All the Girls…, an album of duets with female partners, is custom-made for the download age. Few fans will connect with all 16 songs — the set is too eclectic and inconsistent for that. But plenty of gold nuggets shine through for those willing to pick through the miscues and throwaways.

It’s the second album of original material released this year by Nelson, and his fifth new album in three years; the ever-productive 80-year-old keeps pouring out new music, even when a little self-editing might make the individual packages stronger.

The gems on To All the Girls… include a stunning multi-lingual duet with Alison Krauss on No Mas Amor (written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett) and covers of Merle Haggard’s Somewhere Between, in an emotion-packed version with Loretta Lynn, and a swinging Till the End of the World with Shelby Lynne.

On the other hand, Dolly Parton’s self-written contribution, From Here to the Moon and Back, suffers from over-sentimentality. A cover of the country chestnut Making Believe drags due to a lifeless reading by Nelson — a point driven home by how much more feeling duet partner Brandi Carlile brings to her part.

Nelson’s previous album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance — released just six months ago — is among 2013’s less-recognized highlights. Some selective care would have made To All the Girls… another strong outing, rather than one that alternately soars and sputters.

— Michael McCall

Associated Press


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