In-depth assessment of Paul’s new album
Paul McCartney has always had what you might call a ‘get out of jail free’ card when it comes to his songs and compositions, in the form of his ability to construct and sing wonderful melodies. If the lyric is a bit on the silly side (‘Jet’), or perhaps a tad twee (‘Ebony and Ivory’), McCartney largely gets away with it because the tunes are so often very good. They just take up residence in your brain and require a court order and bailiffs to get them out. ‘Mull of Kintyre’ is another case in point. It’s so deceptively simple, but had massive appeal and it’s all in the melody.
This is a problem in 2020, because while Paul’s gifts as a musician and a creative in-the-studio remain intact, his wonderful singing voice – an instrument that has been in full swing for well over 60 years – unsurprisingly is no longer operating anywhere near full capacity. “His voice is shot” is the blunt, but common, refrain when music fans tend to discuss McCartney these days and while I would hesitate to offer such an uncharitably harsh appraisal, there’s no denying that over time it has transformed, matured, regenerated, if you will. What was a sprightly Matt Smith is now a craggy Peter Capaldi.
It’s sad to contemplate what we are being denied and what he can no longer deliver. But it’s also selfish in a way, because just how much can one man give? McCartney had three solid decades of commercial success and an abundance of great pop hits and after that still enjoyed another 30 years being a mature ‘heritage’ type artist, touring and releasing largely good-to-excellent albums.
My favourite McCartney ‘voice’ is probably the early 1980’s one, prevalent on the three George Martin produced albums (Tug of War, Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards To Broad Street), probably because that’s around the time I actively started buying Paul’s records. When I think of Paul McCartney, I tend to think of “I can wait another day…” (the acapella opening of 1984’s ‘No More Lonely Nights’) or the “It’s a tug of war…” intro from the title track of his 1982 album (one of his very best vocals, for me). The voice was silky smooth, had massive range and could seemingly do anything; go anywhere.
One of the issues, which I think isn’t often considered, is that if you don’t have the vocal chops, it’s not just about singing the old songs well (or not) on stage, it’s about what it means in terms of composing new songs. Clearly, McCartney can’t SING a song like ‘Wanderlust’, (from the Tug of War album) anymore, but moreover, he surely can’t WRITE a song like ‘Wanderlust’ anymore, either. Because he’s limited to where his voice will take him. Yes, of course Paul is quite capable of mapping out a vocal melody on the guitar or piano that is beyond his actual range, but what’s the point if you can’t sing it?
Because of this, I would argue that a new Paul McCartney album is doomed to be not entirely satisfactory, if you are simply judging it as ‘a Paul McCartney album’ and not as the work of a man aged 78. Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but let’s face it, he’s in competition with himself in his 30s and 40s [I’m putting The Beatles to one side] and that is simple not a winnable battle. New songs often deliver flashes of the old inspiration, brushes with past genius, and the occasional feeling of deja vu, when a phrasing recalls one of the previous 500+ songs he has composed, but the thrill, the rush, the giddiness of the melody from heaven, the purity of the delivery of a simple love song [e.g. “There is a pain inside my heart / you mean so much to me / Girl I love you / Girl I love you… so bad”] is not really on the menu anymore. It’s not his fault. Mother Nature has gently removed those particular tools from McCartney’s toolkit.
McCartney of 2020 is left to work around the problems and the limitations and hope that his deep, deep reserves of musical invention and compositional creativity will make up for any vocal/melodic limitations. He’s lost his trowel and spirit level but he still wants to build the wall.
In theory, McCartney III offers Paul the best opportunity to do this, since – in case it wasn’t blindingly obvious – it’s the third part of the ‘McCartney’ franchise, a series of solo albums which are loosely ‘about’ Paul being on his own and, to some degree or another, going off the beaten track.
A quick recap: 50 years ago, just before The Beatles called it a day with Let It Be, Paul released his first solo album, McCartney. He then spent most of the 1970s in his band Wings before 1980’s McCartney II cleaned down the workstation in preparation for 40 years of being a solo artist again. I always thought it would be cute to receive a ‘McCartney’ album at the beginning of each decade, but Paul didn’t oblige. Speaking recently to Loud and Quiet, McCartney simply said “it never occurred to me to do another McCartney album.”
Even though there has only been two records in this style (Paul’s trio of ‘Fireman’ projects with Youth are cut from similar cloth), and the last one was four decades ago, we can certainly establish some defining qualities for a ‘McCartney’ album. First and foremost, it needs to be a ‘one man band’ record. Paul must play all the instruments himself, do all the singing (Linda actually contributed backing vocals to I and II) and of course it must be self-produced. It should also feel a little bit homemade, with some rough edges present and correct.
It’s tempting to decree that the record should be a bit ‘weird’, but actually, if you listen back to the McCartney album of 1970, you will realise the only thing that is strange about it is that it’s not full of the gold standards that Paul was knocking off with ease at the end of the 1960s. ‘Hey Jude’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Get Back’ etc. It does have one song like those, in ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, but the criticism at the time was around how lazy the album felt not have inventive it was! The general feeling was that it was a bit lightweight, with sketchy songs that could probably have done with some more work. When you consider the 11-track album has five instrumentals (not including ‘Oo You’ which is hardly a lyric-fest), the critics had a point. But the record is saved because the world was besotted by Paul McCartney at the end of the 1960s (he hadn’t written ‘Biker Like An Icon’ yet) and the album did have bundles of charm and the ‘proper songs’ that are on there, such as ‘Every Night’, ‘That Would Be Something’, ‘Man We Was Lonely’, ‘Junk’, were pretty good.
Even so, it was rather disconcerting how quickly Paul could go from the ‘do no wrong’ Macca of The Beatles, into the frustrating ‘mixed bag’ McCartney that has defined much of his Wings and solo output. It’s like some guy up above, in charge of rock legends, flicked a switch and accidentally powered down that songwriter and never managed to properly reboot him.
1980’s McCartney II is known for its synthesizers and sequencers but for all its experimentation, ‘One of These Days’ and ‘Waterfalls’ are classic McCartney ballads that could have been on any album, ‘On The Way’ is guitar-led blues number and ‘Nobody Knows’ is a loose crate-banging, shouty singalong. The album does include two instrumentals, in ‘Front Parlour’ and ‘Frozen Jap’, so I think we can say with confidence that instrumentals are also part of the core offering of a ‘McCartney’ album. The casual music fan will know the hit ‘Coming Up’ but will likely either not own the album or if they do, may not be endeared to tracks like ‘Temporary Secretary’, ‘Darkroom’ or the hard-to-forgive ‘Bogey Music’.
To sum up, if McCartney III is going to earn its stripes as the third in the series, it should definitely embody that sense of Paul going Off Piste; some instrumentals should be on the menu; it might well have some ‘slight’ numbers that sound rubbish at first but that you end up grudgingly quite liking, but most importantly, it really should include a ‘classic’ in the mould of ‘Coming Up’ or ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (cue a red warning light flashing on the SDE dashboard-of-expectation).
So enough of the preamble and scene-setting. Let’s get on with it. We’ll go through McCartney III track-by-track offering scores out of five for each song:
The album opens with ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ and it’s a good start. It’s largely an instrumental (‘tick’) with Paul playing lead figures on a peppery acoustic guitar with some percussive muted electric keeping the rhythm going. Layers come in as the track progresses with drums and some occasional vocals keeping things interesting. At over five minutes it probably outstays its welcome, but it’s a strong opener. 4/5
‘Find My Way’ is the lead single and Paul has even made a video for it. It’s a fluid, likeable fast-paced number which has an excellent and catchy arrangement with some Vampire Weekend-style guitar-y bits sprinkled around. Everything about this track is great, except the verse vocal which is not good. It’s a monotonous melody and Paul only half sings it. Curiously, when he reaches for the higher end of his range in this song, in the break (“You never used to be / afraid of days like these), he really delivers it well. If Paul had just reworked – or even scrubbed – the verse, ‘Find My Way’ could have been a cracker, but as it stands it’s two-thirds of a good song. 3/5
‘Pretty Boys’ is an acoustic number not dissimilar in tone to New’s ‘Early Days’. Paul can surely knock out these finger-picked numbers with one hand tied behind his back and while the sparse arrangement leaves his voice fairly exposed, ‘Pretty Boys’ does get the job done without any risks or surprises. He’s done this way better many times before, and indeed later on this very album ‘The Kiss of Venus’ has a magic that this song lacks. 2/5
One of the highlights of McCartney III is ‘Woman and Wives’. It has satisfyingly dark hues, with Paul on piano singing in his ‘Lady Madonna’ voice (which works really well). He sings of “chasing tomorrow” and tells us to “get ready to run”. The song is mysterious, beguiling and over in less than three minutes. This is more like it! 4/5
The face-palm moment on the album is ‘Lavatory Lil’, which is the ‘Bogey Music’ of McCartney III. It’s one of Paul’s ‘comedy’ songs along the lines of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, without the catchiness or the word ’pataphysical’. McCartney clearly gets a kick out of these kinds of ditties, but what I find most frustrating is that one assumes he’s trying to make the best album he can and if, by chance, McCartney III had been a masterpiece (spoiler: it’s not) Paul has just gone and ruined it by trying to be quirky; having a bit of a laff. I’d still be offended if this was an extra track on a 12-inch, not slap-bang in the middle of the album, following the excellent ‘Woman and Wives’. This should have been flushed away. 1/5
Nip to the loo, buy an ice cream and settle down because ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ is McCartney III’s feature presentation. This eight-minute track ticks all the boxes. It starts off acapella, with some call and response vocals, before sparse instrumentation enters the fray. This song is experimental, jazzy, weird, surprising and rather beautiful. It has an almost dreamlike quality. Traditional song structure is treated with disdain and you are never quite sure where you are or which direction you’re facing. It blindfolds you and spins you round and pushes you on your way. This track’s ambition is admirable and it is all executed brilliantly. This is 2020 McCartney on top of his game. That fact that this is so good makes me all the more annoyed about the risible ‘Lavatory Lil’. 5/5
The Wings-like opening to ‘Slidin’ is tantalising and it certainly has a ballsy, rocking appeal but the echoey and low-in-the-mix vocal, the flat verses are something of a handicap. It’s a shame, because the chorus is really quite exciting. Structurally, this track isn’t far away from ‘About You’, another Wings-y track from 2001’s Driving Rain. Ironically, for a song on a one-man-band album, Slidin’ would really have benefited from collaboration – you can easily imagine McCartney’s mate Dave Grohl killing it on drums and sharing vocal duties. Things pick up for the second half of the track, which is largely instrumental, bar a few choruses. 2/5
Prepare the bailiffs, since ‘The Kiss of Venus’ is an ‘earworm’ of the highest order. Paul’s simple five-note melody on acoustic guitar turns into the lead line on The Kiss of Venus and it’s lovely. Macca’s fingerpicking and strumming style on acoustic guitar is so distinctive and this song has a wonderful yearning quality and the lyric is full of great images. McCartney is very much at the top of his range here, which could be cause for concern, but it works because it’s a great melody. Better to stretch for a great tune than stay within your comfort zone for the rather flat ‘Pretty Boys’. Some harpsichord-type keyboard comes in towards the end and it’s all over by the three minute mark. I love this song. 5/5
‘Seize the Day’ is a brilliant chorus – with a classic feel good McCartney-esque descending chord progression – in search of a good song. It’s a frustrating situation but the rest of the track is forgettable and the lyric is one of platitudes and flat lines like ‘it’s still alright to be nice”. 2/5
McCartney III is all over the place in terms of tone, structure and style and ‘Deep Down’ is driven by regretful minor chord organ and with some occasional keyboard horns. There’s not a whole lot to it, with Paul largely repeating the same phrases time and time again to surprisingly good effect (think ‘Ou Est Le Soleil’). It’s goes on a bit as Paul tries out different ways of singing “I’m gonna get deep down” but I throughly enjoyed this track. Like the other ‘deep’ on the album (‘Deep Deep Feeling’) it’s gives the finger to traditional song structure and is therefore feels at home on a ‘McCartney’ album. 4/5
The last track on the album, ‘When Winter Comes’, is preceded by a brief reprise of Long Tailed Winter Bird, which is why the full title is Winter Bird / When Winter Comes. At first, I was confused as to why Paul’s voice sounded more youthful on this song but the answer lies in the fact that this was actually recorded at the same sessions as ‘Calico Skies’ in 1992. In some ways, it’s a brave decision to include this on McCartney III since it’s pretty easy to contrast and compare vocal performances which are separated by 28 years, but it’s a lovely tune with Paul playing acoustic guitar and singing of little jobs that need doing on the farm (“I must find the time to plant some trees”). It’s pure ‘Heart of the Country’ Macca, with Paul recalling life with Linda and the kids in Scotland. ‘When Winter Comes’ was nearly a bonus track on the recent Flaming Pie reissue (which would have made sense) but Paul decided it deserved more prominence and I don’t disagree. This song is perfect, it’s from the heart and it’s pure McCartney. 5/5
In summary, McCartney III is in many ways a typical Paul McCartney album. There are great tracks, some average numbers and a duffer or two. It’s not a masterpiece but neither is it terrible. Paul rarely makes flawless long-players; the last was probably Chaos and Creation in the Backyard from 2005, and that benefitted from Nigel Godrich refusing to be a yes man and really challenging Paul over some of the material. McCartney III isn’t even as good as his last album, Egypt Station. That 2018 record wasn’t perfect, but there’s nothing on McCartney III as good as ‘Hand in Hand’ or ‘Dominoes’. And in terms of heavy rock, ‘Hunt You Down’ is better than ‘Slidin’’, for example. One feels that Greg Kurstin, like Godrich, was a great influence.
But as has been discussed, ‘McCartney’ albums are about doing something a bit different and are always interesting, if uneven, diversions. McCartney III maintains this tradition and so can be broadly regarded as a success. It delivers Paul’s musical personality on a plate; a McCartney tasting menu, if you will. Some dishes put in front of us are less appealing than others, but the experience is one to be remembered, even cherished, especially since we don’t know when, or if, we will dine at this establishment again.
McCartney III is out now. SDE’s overall album rating: 3/5.
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McCartney III - black vinyl LP
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McCartney III - CD edition
1. Long Tailed Winter Bird (5.17)
2. Find My Way (3.55)
3. Pretty Boys (3.01)
4. Women and Wives (2.53)
5. Lavatory Lil (2.23)
6. Deep Deep Feeling (8.27)
7. Slidin’ (3.25)
8. The Kiss of Venus (3.09)
9. Seize The Day (3.23)
10. Deep Down (5.55)
11. Winter Bird/When Winter Comes (3.13)