Monday, November 8, 2010

Notes on "English Tea"

When I last listened to Paul's album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, I found myself a bit confused by the sixth track, "English Tea." You'll recall that, at the suggestion of Sir George Martin, Paul brought in Nigel Godrich, who had previously worked with Radiohead and Beck, to produce the album. Evidently, the collaboration was not always a harmonious one, as Godrich refused to roll over for Macca; in fact, he was blunt in his assessment of Paul's output, likely cringing over the same indulgences (the silliness, the schmaltz, etc.) that have drawn the ire of critics for much of Paul's career. What emerged from their occasional differences of opinion, though, was one of Paul's best received solo albums. Chaos earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and Godrich was up for Producer of the Year. The standard line is that, unlike other producers, Godrich was demanding of the legend in his midst, forcing him to focus and to jettison those tendencies that often attended his "silly love songs."

What, then, to make of "English Tea," a gushingly precious song if there ever was one? Accompanied by piano, strings, and a flute solo, Paul invites an acquaintance (or otherwise) to join him for a morning filled with tea, "fairy cakes," delightful chats (to paraphrase the lyric), and croquet, a request he himself describes as "very twee, very me." He also mentions there are "hollyhocks" to be seen, and he uses the word "peradventure." He's clearly not trying to mask the song's affected daintiness; it's in plain view.

The question becomes this: how did "English Tea" make the final cut? Not knowing many more details about the album's formation than those I listed above, I'll propose several possible explanations. 1) The song is self-parody ("very twee, very me"), which made Godrich comfortable with it; 2) Godrich actually liked the song, with its pleasant melody and tranquil imagery; 3) Paul McCartney is still Paul McCartney - he can easily trump the reservations that others may have about certain songs of his; and 4) Godrich consented to it with the aim of setting up a vivid and damning contrast between those disciplined and mature tracks he guided to completion and the one on which silly, saccharine Paul had free reign. Rather Machiavellian, no?

Most of this is speculation, so I might be grossly uninformed on some counts. It's just a thought experiment that amused me.

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