Press to Play (EMI Paul McCartney Collection 92692)
Easily the most unjustly overlooked album in the McCartney catalog, Press to Play is also one of the most unique, finding Paul experimenting with a harder edged sound than he is normally given to, with lots of "technology" (as they called it back in those days). It is probably closest in spirit to Flowers in the Dirt (Paul's subsequent studio album), with Paul in "serious" mode, where even the attempts at humor seem serious a very VH1 sort of album, although unfortunately for Paul, VH1 had not discovered itself in 1986. Funny how things change!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The big single off the album was "Press," a great Paul single and yet another of the "forgotten" McCartney songs. I think everyone seems to want to brush the 1984-88 period under the rug, although honestly, he was about as fertile then as any time (if not in terms of sheer output, then in terms of ratio of quality material to overall total released output). His mid-80s style is, like many things from that era, style over substance, but then Paul has always been that. The songs on this album are a bit more baffling than usual "Press" is a good example, with its out-of-nowhere "Oklahoma was never like this" bridge, but there's plenty of weirdness abounding here. "Pretty Little Head" (the second single, believe it or not) tries to conjure some sort of quasi-primitive scenario with chants of "hillmen, hillmen" and "Ursa Major, Ursa Minor."
"Talk More Talk" laments the proliferation of "chat" (perhaps Paul was envisioning the Internet 10 years ahead of schedule? Or perhaps he was just in need of an idea) with tape-manipulated spoken word effects. For all the random content of the lyrics, the sonic content is consistently impressive Paul even included pastel "stereo pictures" in the liner notes so the listener can pinpoint where everything is in the mix. (I'd like to make the easy joke about "Maybe he should have spent less time on the pastels and more time on the songwriting," but actually I like all the songs on the album.)
Several of the songs have a certain darkness to them: "Stranglehold," "Footprints," "Angry" not the typical "Silly Love Songs" you'd expect. All good songs. "Angry" would make a great concert song, though I'm sure he'd never do it another one of Paul's "what's he so mad at" songs (see also "No Values"). The closest comparison would be to Billy Joel's "rock" songs ("A Matter of Trust," etc.), but with a definite Wings feel. "Move Over Busker" is kind of a cross between "Junior's Farm" and "Ballroom Dancing," in fact. Almost all of the songs feature a very guitar-driven sound (Paul sure was loving that distorted electric guitar sound for, oh, about six years), with departures found in "Only Love Remains" (a classic Paul ballad that I was 100% sure would be a triumphant #1 hit I think it peaked at like #73), "Footprints," (one of Paul's more sincerely affecting sad songs), "However Absurd" (sounding sort of like a Pink Floyd outtake, with some pretty awful lyrics: "Ears twitch, like a dog, breaking eggs in a dish." Quadruple yuck!), "Write Away" (would have been a good song to duet with Stevie Wonder on imagine that, a good Stevie & Paul duet!?), and "Tough on a Tightrope" (great midtempo tune that wouldn't have been out of place on London Town, except that it's memorable).
"Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun" is an edgy reggae-flavored song (every McCartney album must be required to have at least 5% "reggae") that ends up with a virtual rewrite of "Let the Sunshine In" by the Fifth Dimension, but it's all good. "It's Not True" succeeds in spite of (definitely not because of) a too-big intro that sounded dated even right after the album came out, and more than any other track on the album gives the clearest picture of the 20,000 foot-deep reverb chamber the songs must have been recorded in.
Press to Play was a huge favorite of mine throughout 1986-87 (in fact, it was the third CD I ever bought, behind Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and, if memory serves, Paul Simon's Graceland. Hey, shut up, I'm sure you've bought just as bad CD's! Besides, at the time there were only like 5 CD's available), and now that I think of it, was the longest-surviving CD in my collection when I sold it back this week to replace it with the UK version, which adds two bonus tracks let's see, twelve years in the collection, that's marvelous. (Dark Side lasted less than three; Graceland perhaps four.) The bonus tracks are "Once Upon a Long Ago" (a mellow 1987 single included on the UK version of All the Best, and I contend it's a veiled Beatles reference song) and "Spies Like Us" (which may be the most regrettable, clock-punching thing Paul's ever done though I admit it remains a guilty pleasure, quite unlike the film from which it came, which remains a memory I'll forever try to expunge).
I really think Press to Play deserves reassessment, even though I acknowledge that it is one of my "nostalgia" albums. The writing is strong (some of the songs co-written with 10CC's Eric Stewart *blank stare*) and the album sounds great. Don't let those over-40 year-olds tell you this album bites just because they'd gotten so bored with Paul by then. Some of us were excited to get new music from the guy right when we were into him most. I wouldn't say this is a masterpiece, but a very solid album (much, much better than Tug of War, by comparison) and unfortunately ignored. Well, if you must, you can certainly ignore the line "Hey don't feel afraid/ of an undercover aid" (from "Spies Like Us"), but give the rest a fair shake.
Review by Ivan Loverling