Listen to this track by Liverpudlian songwriting titan and one of four Beatles Paul McCartney. It’s “Jenny Wren” a top forty UK single as taken from his 2005 album Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. The album was co-produced with Beck and Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, and scored a top 10 showing on the Billboard 200.
The record was looked upon as something of a return to a certain sound and approach for McCartney, only touched on as recently as 1998’s Flaming Pie. For one, he played most of the parts himself, just as he’d done with his first solo album all the way back in 1970. He also returned to a signature sound for which he became known while still officially in The Beatles, that being a spare and acoustic sound that he’d developed while at Transcendental Meditation summer camp with the Maharishi in 1968.
This song in particular hooks into a signature McCartney play that certainly goes back to the sixties; the 1860s!
The name “Jenny Wren” is borrowed from another English writer, that being Charles Dickens who wrote a character of his own in his 1864 novel Our Mutual Friend with the same moniker as the character in McCartney’s song. There, Dickens’ Jenny Wren is a disabled doll’s dressmaker, with an alcoholic father, a childhood characterized by deprivation, and a sort of tarnished acceptance that life will always be a misery. But Jenny knows that the business of life must go on regardless of her personal circumstances. Because of that attitude, Jenny Wren isn’t a helpless victim. In her own way, she triumphs even if the world around her remains unchanged.
Looking back, it’s easy to draw a parallel between Dickens’ Jenny Wren and McCartney’s wife at the time, Heather Mills, who is also disabled while still getting on with the business of life at the time via her active participation in charity work. At the same time and beyond that specific parallel, this song has a wider context and can be applied to a certain stream of McCartney’s work back to his Beatle days and into his solo career too.
If his one-time musical partner John Lennon is best known for using his songwriting capacity for working through his personal demons, McCartney is known for the opposite, not generally writing about himself in any overt way, but rather about characters instead, like a novelist. More often than not, the characters he chose to write about were women. Eleanor Rigby, Lady Madonna,”She” from “She’s Leaving Home”, and the heroine of his solo song “Another Day” all star in some of his most recognized tunes.
Although McCartney is known for his love songs, catchy tunes, and often also by lyrical fluff, he had something to say about the tragedies of life as well. If Lennon dealt in externalizing his pain and struggle, then in some important instances, so does McCartney. It’s just that the pain externalized in some of McCartney’s songs including this one is not his own, but rather that same kind of quiet hardship that Dickens was trying to tap into and express to his readers; the casualties of a society who are difficult to see or to remember. All the lonely people. As much as “Jenny Wren” evokes the sonic worlds of “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, it also becomes a part of a personal tradition that explored these stories of women who are overlooked by an insensitive, inattentive, sometimes cruel, and ultimately not very empathetic society.
At the time of its release and the release of the Chaos and Creation In The Backyard album, that old “return to form” language could be found in reviews. This time, it really felt appropriate. Those who had fallen by the wayside where solo McCartney fandom was concerned perked up their ears, and bought the record. A lot of that had to do with how focused that record is, with many giving credit to Nigel Godrich who purportedly held McCartney’s feet to the fire when it came to song selection, and possibly other artistic choices while in the studio. In the end though, it’s this common and venerable thread that ties this song, and many of the others on the record, to his glorious past. That was all down to the songwriter himself. It was as if Paul McCartney come home at last.
Today is Paul McCartney’s birthday, born as he was on June 18, 1942. He’s 73! Wish him a happy birthday at paulmccartney.com.
Also, if you want to learn more about Chaos and Creation … and the kind of impact it had as one of those “return to form” albums by veteran artists, have a read of this review that goes into the wonders of the record, and trials and tribulations of loving latter-day solo McCartney albums at all!