Looking For Changes: Paul McCartney’s Off The Ground at 30
Is it an underappreciated gem or Macca’s weakest solo album?
Off the Ground is something of an “in between” album for Paul McCartney.
Its predecessor, Flowers in the Dirt (1989), was tied in to his first concert tour in a decade. The subsequent Flaming Pie (1997) was rightly hailed as his best album since 1982’s Tug of War. With no major hit singles or fan favorites, Off the Ground hasn’t exactly fallen from favor; it’s more like it’s been overlooked. Only a dedicated Macca fan would be able to hum the tune of “Golden Earth Girl.”
At the time, McCartney was still clinging to the notion that you needed to tour behind a new album, not fully appreciating that the majority of his audiences were more interested in unleashing their inner Beatle than in hearing new songs (though a few Wings tunes could be thrown in without complaint). In time, he got the message: his 1993 tour featured six songs from Off the Ground, while last year’s tour had only one song from his most recent album, McCartney III. But back in 1992, with a new band and an unquenchable work ethic, McCartney was eager to get back into the studio, recording at least 25 tracks during the Off the Ground sessions.
The end result is a pleasant, if uneven, album. There are feel-good homilies like “Peace in the Neighbourhood,” a rather cloying paean to family life; “Best thing I ever saw/was a man who loved his wife,” McCartney croons in the opening line. He’s decidedly more energized on the up tempo “Hope of Deliverance,” a wistful yearning for salvation “from the darkness that surrounds us.” “C’mon People” is in a similar vein thematically, a generalized plea for world harmony that builds in intensity a la the climactic ending of “Hey Jude”; it’s a number that proved to be far more powerful in concert than on record.
Perhaps the most interesting song is when McCartney ventures out of his lyrical safe zone on “Looking for Changes.” Instead of talking in generalities, he gets explicit about his support for animal rights (and the CD’s original booklet used the infamous photo of a cat with a machine stuck in its head that appeared on the cover of the Village Voice, illustrating a story about animal experimentation). Facebook comments in response to McCartney’s posts about vegetarianism suggest he changed few minds, but the song still stands as one of the few times he’s been openly political in a song.
For some reason, the fantasy number “Biker Like an Icon” has been cited by numerous McCartney fans as one of his worst ever efforts. In fact, beyond the admittedly silly pun of the title (a play on the camera names “Leica” and “Nikon”), this rockabilly-infused number has a sinister undercast; a stalker becomes the victim when the object of her attention turns the tables on her (“He didn’t ask for her permission/He took advantage of her position…And no trace of her sweet face was ever found”). McCartney’s dispassionate narration of the tale adds to the subliminal horror.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Biker Like An Icon”
The remaining tracks are a mixed bag. The loping title song fares the best, the kind of toe-tapper McCartney specializes in. The two numbers co-written with Elvis Costello, “Mistress and Maid,” about a grossly inattentive husband, and “The Lovers That Never Were,” about unrequited love (or, if you’re feeling snarky, an incel) are as clunky as their previous co-writes. “I Owe It All to You” and “Winedark Open Sea” are love songs with tuneful melodies and bland lyrics. The same came be said of “Golden Earth Girl,” a portrait of the environment (with more punning from McCartney, who reworks “in excelsis” as “in eggshell seas”) that feels unfinished. Standing out like a sore thumb is “Get Out of My Way,” a token rocker here, bolstered by a tasty horn arrangement.
In retrospect, Off the Ground shows what Paul McCartney’s like when he’s marking time; all’s well in the world and he doesn’t have to try too hard. The album served its purpose as a launch pad for his next tour, and was then relegated to history — after a benefit performance for London’s Royal College of Music in 1995, none of Off the Ground’s songs were ever performed live again.
Maybe it’s a case of too much chaff and not enough wheat, but it’s still a congenial album you can kick back and relax to, while you’re waiting to see what happens next.
AUDIO: Paul McCartney Off The Ground (full album)
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One thought on “Looking For Changes: Paul McCartney’s Off The Ground at 30”
M&M and LTNW are clunky?
They are, by far, the best two songs on the album.