Album Review: Paul McCartney – Ocean’s Kingdom

Welcome to Ocean’s Kingdom, the soundtrack to a work by Sir Paul McCartney commissioned by the New York City Ballet. Far from being his first foray into the symphonic world, it’s the British knight’s fifth classical album in 20 years since Liverpool Oratorio, but his very first ballet. McCartney has earned so many accolades that it is hard to dish out criticism without dues being paid. Though his solo work never scaled the heights of The Beatles, the guy remains an icon, a charismatic live performer with huge energy for someone who will turn 70 next June. His classical compositions should therefore be judged in context.

From the limp reviews the ballet itself has garnered you might expect a damp squib of an album. The plot may be a little leaky, a kind of watery Romeo & Juliet, yet the strikingly simple underwater city cover art promises a decent effort in a genre that hardly comes natural to songwriters used to three-minute pop constraints. Clocking a little over 50 minutes, it demonstrates how difficult it is for such symphonic music to hold aural attention without visuals. Yet while it’s not really great music, comparable to the masterful works of Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, it has its day by the sea.

Arranged in four movements, the opening titular one builds steadily towards a simplistic yet boastful theme. It is quite repetitive but spidery strings and swelling bass notes nicely mimic the ebb and flow of the sea. Movement two, “Hall of Dance” opens with echoes of both the urban playground of Bernstein and Copland’s wild west until it gets hooked on Gershwin. It may approach pastiche but it’s the most successful and vivid of the entire piece, building to an agreeably discordant finale.

The last two movements, “Imprisonment” and “Moonrise”, rather meander by comparison and while each has its moments, they somehow lack the adventure of the opening two sections. A tale of the expected largely. A ballet by Paul McCartney may not tick the necessary groundbreaking boxes but then again hasn’t the maestro been writing dance music most of his days?

Essential Tracks: “Hall of Dance”


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