Like 2020 itself, a self-titled Paul McCartney album is as much about liberation as isolation. 1970’s debut solo album ‘McCartney’ was a ramshackle collection of intimate, lo-fi tunes recorded onto four-track, with McCartney delivering everything besides wife Linda’s backing vocals, but it also marked his step away from The Beatles.
That album was imbued with the fragility and sadness he’d felt since John Lennon had informed the band of his intention to leave in 1969. 1980’s ‘McCartney II’ was a far more confident affair, experimenting with electronics and lifted by ‘Coming Up’, but similarly marked the end of the road for Wings and the start of Sir Paul as a solo artist in earnest, free to work with anyone from Elvis Costello to Rupert The Bear.
‘McCartney III’ arrives with no such musical era to end, but certainly has a new one to start. Recorded solo during lockdown in March, it doesn’t so much reflect a turning tide in McCartney’s life and music, but a wider pandemic-inspired shift.
No one yet knows what the music world will look like once the vaccine kicks in, or even how much of it will survive, but with the swift evolution of livestreaming, solitary writing and home recording during 2020, it’s likely to be leaner and more streamlined for the next decade. And ‘McCartney III’ acts as a signifier and motivation for what can be achieved. Y’know, even if you don’t happen to be self-isolating in a private studio in a converted Sussex mill.
The record initially throws back even further than 1970. Opener ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ strikes up a swampy blues beat beneath raw and ragged acoustic riffs, emulating a very different form of isolation: the Delta bluesman in his tumbledown shack. Along with its album-ending coda, it helps to shroud the album in a rootsy, pastoral intimacy fitting for the times and akin to (although significantly meatier than) ‘McCartney’.
In between, as you’d expect from a legend who’s been pushing his electronic boundaries on recent albums such as ‘2018’s ‘Egypt Station’, Sir Paul approaches the record with the same adventuring spirit as he did ‘McCartney II’, even as his solitary situation demands he revive his game in terms of classic Macca melodies.
So ‘Find My Way’ is a Beck-like future-pop sizzler laced with echoes of ‘Revolver’ tune ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ brass and Wings-style hula-rock riffs. Eight-minute album centrepiece ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ may be overlong and lathered with emotional cheese (“You know that deep, deep feeling when you feel your heart is gonna burst… it almost hurts, it’s such a deep emotion?”; no Paul, what on Earth are you on about?), but it’s built around a crisp rhythmic electro-noir woven from Portishead strings, The xx pianos and wailing War On Drugs guitars.
That Macca manages to concoct such material without the guiding hands of recent producers Greg Kurstin, Mark Ronson and Paul Epworth is testament to an unending quest for evolution. Like its 1980 predecessor, ‘McCartney III’ finds him, at the very least, out to keep pace with the times.
In fact, where ‘McCartney III’ really breaks from the lineage of its eponymous forebears is in its sheer unpredictability. A ‘White Album’ sort of eclecticism was key to the greatness of 2018’s ‘Egypt Station’, and ‘McCartney III’ is even more chameleonic. ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ gives way to the monstrous psych metal riffage of ‘Slidin’’, the sound of the man who wrote ‘Helter Skelter’ returning to see how his creation has grown; ‘Slidin’, in turn, cedes ground to a charmingly vaudevillian falsetto folk ditty called ‘The Kiss Of Venus’, a kissing cousin of The Beatles’ ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ inspired, bizarrely, by an astrology book Paul was given by Jools Holland’s wife.
‘Women And Wives’, a wise and austere piano shuffle worthy of Nick Cave or Johnny Cash, finds itself sandwiched between a sweet, glitchy acoustic tribute to the art of male modelling (‘Pretty Boys’) and a spite-fuelled ‘50s roadhouse rocker aimed at an untrustworthy ex-associate cruelly cast as ‘Lavatory Lil’: “You think she’s being friendly but she’s looking for a Bentley”. There’s a Beatling freedom to the record; you can’t imagine what’s coming at you next.
Ultimately, though he may not have been as short on outside space as the rest of us, Paul certainly intends ‘McCartney III’ as a source of Covid consolation. “You never used to be afraid of days like this and now you’re overwhelmed by your anxiety,” he sings on ‘Find My Way’, “Let me help you round, let me be your guy”. The Pepper-esque ‘Seize The Day’ sets out to rouse spirits for the post-vaccine new normal, and the closing ‘When Winter Comes’ is pure isolationist empathy; a folky farmer’s lament about building fences to protect livestock, digging ditches to drain carrot patches and facing a stark, remote winter when “food is scarce”.
That song also brings the trilogy full circle – originally written in the ‘90s, it finds Paul reminiscing about retreating to Scotland as The Beatles collapsed to make ‘McCartney’. If future archaeologists take this three-album series as a significant marker of his solo half-century, they’ll conclude that Paul McCartney never stopped liberating.
Label: Capitol Records
Release date: December 18