Mick Jagger / Paul McCartney

Trying to cajole dissipating old farts into retirement is as tired a chore as they are; rockers, like athletes and whores, know not when to play their final encore, deaf as they are from years of prolonged applause. So let them play on and on and on and on; there's plenty of back catalog to occupy the rest of us as they satisfy their urges to remain relevant, if not utterly redundant. Besides, there's always a Jann Wenner out there willing to chug a little rock-star cock for five stars to convince the wary and cynical the new Mick J.'s worth the 20 bucks. So let the old men play in their velvet sandboxes whilst gulping their Geritol-and-Cristal cocktails; little chance of them gracefully riding off into the sunset, so let them do their thing. Ain't hurting nobody.

Yet as the year winds down, it's impossible not to stare, mouths agape, at the freak show the music biz proffers: First returns Michael Jackson, detachable face and all, selling by the thousands what millions tuned in to gawk at on CBS; then comes Britney, hustling her poor-pitiful-me shit with tits cocked and loaded; and now, wheezing their way down the aisles, come Mick and Paul without their better halves yet again. The acolytes line up to offer their huzzahs, to toss their rose petals, to buy at full price what will be available at discount by next year's end. It was big news when Mick split with Keef 16 long years back to declare She's the Boss; now, it's been in the cutout bin so long it looks like a jigsaw puzzle. And as for McCartney, when, truly, is the last occasion anyone had occasion to run out for one of his solo discs? Flowers in the Dirt? Off the Ground? Flaming Pie? Even the most devout acolyte would have trouble recalling those discs' best, save for the Elvis C. co-writes, which only proved how incomplete he can be. McCartney is beloved, and deservedly so, but don't kid yourself: At his best, he's not half the man he used to be. Then, I believe in yesterday.

That said, Driving Rain may be his most compelling disc in decades, which is only half a backhanded compliment (the left hand, not my strong one). It's yet another batch of love songs, only this time not so silly: The murky, sullen opener "Lonely Road," in fact, is at once poignant and barbed, a lament that gives way to warning. "I tried to get over you/I tried to find something new," he sings to his late wife, Linda, in the familiar voice of a Beatle Boy Scout, "But all I could ever do/Was fill my time/With thoughts of you." But the master of light pop grows even darker, more bitter, as though McCartney allows in a single three-minute pop song for all the emotions felt when loss overwhelms, when grief gives way to rage. "Don't want to let you take me down/Don't want to get hurt second time around." Perhaps what makes Driving Rain so utterly fascinating is its intention: The disc is at once a tribute to his late wife and an offering to his future one, Heather Mills, who even gets a (mostly) instrumental named for her (too bad it sounds like a cross between a Who outtake and an Olympics inspirational jingle). Watching him balance the two, juggling sadness and optimism (and Hofner bass), is captivating--more so than the actual disc, sadly, which too often sounds like nothing more than McCartney covering McCartney.

Driving Rain strives to mingle his popcraft with his loose-and-lowdown love for rock-and-roll oldies; it desperately wants to mesh the best of Flowers in the Dirt with Run, Devil, Run, but the results are too obvious, the cliché that keeps on giving. The music too often dulls the point of the occasionally pointed lyrics; "From a Lover to a Friend," about his relationship with Mills, sounds too much like "Let it Be" slowed down and drained of its impact. "Tiny Bubble" has the feel of something left off an Al Green disc; it's soul, yes, but not particularly soulful (those benighted Brits--so restrained, even when cutting loose). "Rinse the Raindrops" is so very Wings (good Christ), and it's not for nothing that the best songs ("About You," "Riding into Jaipur" and "Back in the Sunshine," the latter giving some sense of where Sir Paul's head is these days) recall, without reminding one of, latter-day Beatles; it's as though the man went walking down Abbey Road, then got lost on one of its dimmer side streets. The only real bummer is his decision, last minute, to tack on the dashed-off "Freedom," which he performed twice at the Concert for New York City--two times too many, no matter how sincere the sentiment.

About the only thing Goddess in the Doorway has going for it is the fact it sucks in a most fascinating way: Jagger, nearing 60 and fearing the dark inevitable perhaps, has penned himself a disc about feeling lousy, being lousy and wanting a little redemption before The End comes nigh. (Yeah, right--but it says so in my new Rolling Stone.) Appropriate, then, he opens the disc with a Rob Thomas co-write about "aching" for the chick he wants to know everything about (he'll keep his pain secret, for now, but, boy, does he ever ache--and he'll remind you of it again and again). It all feels so disingenuous, these songs about looking for Buddha and stumbling across Christ (he's in the path of Mick's four-wheel drive--look out, J.C.!) and wanting you to feel his "solitude" and how he's gonna be "sweet and true." Mick, turns out, just wants you to love him and pity him, which is about as appealing a notion as watching the old man throw down with the rock-star spasms all these years later. (My grandfather called; he wants his knees back.) Bono and Pete Townshend lend a hand; Wyclef Jean and Joe Perry lend a foot. Maybe next time Mick will return Keith's call.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky