The artwork to ‘FourFiveSeconds’, Paul McCartney’s 2015 chart-busting team-up with Rihanna and Kanye West, is a sight to behold. Kanye and RiRi are a natural, brilliant pairing, but your eye is drawn to Macca’s sheepishness. He wields an acoustic guitar as if to say, ‘Psst! Looky here! I play the guitar on this song! That’s why I’m here!’
It’s not such a bad idea, given that McCartney said he’d barely even realised his riff from the recording sessions would end up on the song. He later joked about the tongue-in-cheek response that West had done him a favour: “I mean, there’s a lot of people who think Kanye discovered me,” he told GQ in 2018.
Ever the optimist, he brushed past the eyebrow-raising implication: is Paul McCartney finally old news? The response to his solo material for several decades had been polite, albeit muted. Perhaps ‘McCartney III: Imagined’ – an expansive, heartwarming covers-slash-remix album of his 2020 album of the same name – harks back to that moment; an opportunity to remind the sceptics and convince the newbies that this Beatle isn’t old hat, and that both contemporaries and admirers alike are ready to drop everything to work with him.
Over five decades, the ‘McCartney’ album series offered its namesake a decade-spanning odyssey of musical experimentation. 1970’s lo-fi instalment was released 10 days after his public announcement that he had left The Beatles for good; The Guardian initially called it an album of “no substance”, its triumphs perhaps soured by the news of the band’s demise. Its legacy, alongside that of 1980’s freaky electro-infused sequel, has improved with time – this was, essentially, one of the first ever ‘bedroom pop’ albums, pieced together on a four-track recorder with few thrills.
And what better time than “rockdown”, as McCartney gleefully calls it, to turn this thing into a trilogy? As with the first two, he plays almost all of the instruments heard on ‘McCartney III’ , with little outside input. The four star NME review said that the album was “as much about liberation as isolation” and called the completion of the series “as a significant marker of his solo half-century”.
‘McCartney III: Imagined’, then is a vibrant, well-earned victory lap. In what’s been billed as a “personally curated” roll-call of existing friends and new acquaintances, McCartney takes a step back and hands over complete control of a song each to his collaborators. Some have used the opportunity to insert their own twist on Macca’s songwriting in the shape of a cover, while others merely mess around with the provided colours in the palette for their own gain; both approaches are intriguing.
The guestlist is an astounding snapshot of modern music, plenty of its artists at the peak of their powers. Well-known fans in the shape of Beck, Damon Albarn, Josh Homme and Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien rub shoulders with trendy modern stars including Khruangbin, Blood Orange and St Vincent, as well as some who may be complete newbies, like shit-hot US exports Dominic Fike and Phoebe Bridgers. The disciples savoured the moment; St Vincent recently told NME that getting Macca’s thumbs-up for her version of ‘Women And Wives’ was “the best moment of her life”.
‘McCartney III’’s freshness lends it to both faithful covers and complete rewrites – there’s no baggage to these songs. Dominic Fike’s version of ‘The Kiss of Venus’ – warped through squelchy R&B – does a bit of both; his interpretation retains the gooey sentiment (“She scored a bullseye in the early morning glow”) but contrasts it with his own doomy take on modern-day discourse (“Have you read the paper? / People talking about which side they’re taking”), outing himself as one of the few Gen Zers who prefer getting their fingers inky to a cramp-inducing doom-scroll.
Texas psych-funkers Khruangbin pitch McCartney’s original vocals down for their own trippy gain on ‘Pretty Girls’, while Damon Albarn’s dubby take on ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ provides the previously instrumental track with a dash of Gorillaz-style character. Massive Attack’s 3D takes 11-minute closer ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ down a long and winding road that concludes in the ravey dimensions McCartney dabbled with on 1980’s ludicrously fun ‘Temporary Secretary’.
Those who daren’t deviate too far from the original have just as much success. St. Vincent’s slinky take finds success as their rock backgrounds converge, while Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Seize The Day’ yanks Macca the same warped world as her 2020 breakthrough album ‘Punisher’. Anderson .Paak’s subtle tweaks on the already gorgeous ‘When Winter Comes’ turns Macca’s to-do list (“fix the fence by the acre plot… dig a drain by the carrot patch”) into gorgeous, lo-fi soul. Macca started the song with the intent of “warm[ing] our toes” on his chilly Surrey farm, but Anderson’s are dug deep into the Golden State native’s sandy beaches.
‘McCartney III: Imagined’ is another fine entry into the self-titled collection. The sheer star-power and respect from contemporaries and newbies is another flex that proves the endeavour, which started over 51 years ago, was a worthy one. And, hey, perhaps he can do Kanye a favour and pop him on ‘McCartney IV: Redux’.
Release date: April 16
Record label: Capitol Records