Just before his death in 1980, John Lennon spoke to Playboy magazine about the Beatles tapping into the zeitgeist in the 1960s. “Whatever wind was blowing at the time moved the Beatles, too. I'm not saying we weren't flags on the top of a ship; but the whole boat was moving. Maybe the Beatles were in the crow's-nest, shouting, ‘Land ho,’ or something like that, but we were all in the same damn boat,” he said. Although of much-reduced cultural cache these days, forty years later, one of the Fabs is still sailing in the zeitgeist boat.
Plenty of wonderful music was recorded and released in 2020; albums and singles that were necessarily created in lockdown, while covid-19 raged through the world. Musicians have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. In the age of streaming, barring the very few at the top of the industry, almost no musician makes enough money from album sales alone. They need to go out and perform live to earn a living, something that’s been impossible this year. And yet, they gave of themselves generously in 2020, performing impromptu online concerts, teaching, and releasing new music.
Paul McCartney, stuck in his farm in Sussex, England, is one of the very few people in the world who could have afforded to be idle. Instead, he wrote, recorded, produced and released an entire record from scratch, McCartney III, on December 18. The third in a loosely-themed trilogy of odds-and-ends albums, the first of these came in 1970 (McCartney), even as The Beatles were breaking up. The second, McCartney II, was released in 1980, as McCartney was winding up his other band Wings. III has no such obvious context, except, of course, the greatest disruption of all, covid-19.
And what a delight it is! First off, what the album accomplishes is to give us another chance to enjoy Sir Paul’s sublime musical gifts. It’s a timely reminder that when the 78-year-old is not chasing the charts, working with faddish producers and trying to please the widest possible number of people, he remains one of the greatest composers and singers in the world. Barring a couple of missteps (the execrable ‘Lavatory Lil’, for example), this is his best album since 2005’s sublime Chaos And Creation In The Backyard.
III is less outright weird than II and more coherent than I, but is informed by the same sense of playfulness. The long opening instrumental, ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ has a legato riff running through it, sounding like a cross between a Celtic tune and an Indian raga. In two other long songs, ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ and ‘Deep Down’, McCartney creates ghostly, open-ended instrumental suites, over which he sings about love, longing and sex. But each of these three suffer a bit due to the lack of structure, and go on for a minute or two too long, without any real payoffs.
While talking about McCartney’s music, it’s often easy to overlook how heavy he can get if he wants to. 1968’s ‘Helter Skelter’, for example, was a proto-heavy metal roar for the ages. In III, we find McCartney channeling Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age with the sinuous riff-rocker 'Slidin’. Doubling up the riff on an electric guitar and bass, McCartney sets out his credo, “I know there must be other ways of feeling free, But this is what I wanna do, who I wanna be”. This is the only song in which his usual band members join, with Rusty Anderson providing the guitar heroics, and the fantastic Abe Laboriel Jr. bashing out a wicked drum groove.
In the moody ‘Pretty Boys’ he looks at the ambiguities of fame. He would know. He was once part of a famous group of pretty boys, “bicycles for hire, objects of desire, you can look but you never can touch,” as he sings. ‘Women and Wives’ is another affecting piece of Macca-song, where he fully inhabits his full old-man voice over a piano figure straight out of Coldplay. It’s hopeful and wary at the same time: “chasing tomorrow, getting ready to run” he sings in a deep quaver. As McCartney’s phenomenal voice has aged, it has become a fascinating instrument, as distinct as Bob Dylan’s catarrhal wheeze. As he warbles and falsettos his way through the songs, it often feels like he’s breaking new ground, of a famous pop voice finding new registers in the twilight of his career.
McCartney wouldn’t be himself without his inherent optimism, and he finds new ways to be engagingly positive. You could find both ‘Find My Way’ and ‘Seize the Day’, two of the poppiest songs on III, on any McCartney album of the last 20 years. Yet even these two McCartney-by-the-number ditties are elevated by bold musical touches. In the former, McCartney becomes an all-night pharmacy of goodwill for all pandemic-anxiety-stricken folk accompanied by a Tinariwen-esque guitar figure, soul horns and bouncy drums: “You never used to be afraid of days like these, and now you're overwhelmed by your anxieties, let me help you out, let me be your guide.” In ‘Seize the Day’, McCartney makes a case for basic decency, and a world where “it’s still alright to be nice.” Warning of cold days to come, when the sun fails to shine and old certainties fade away, he insists that the only way out is carpe diem. In the song’s bridge he quotes the melody of Jimmy Ruffin’s ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’, a charming touch from a lifelong fan of Motown and R&B.
The two absolute stunners on the album are both acoustic songs, which truly demonstrate McCartney’s songwriting genius. Of these, the delicately fingerpicked ‘Kiss of Venus’ heaps on the melody. Starting on the E major scale, McCartney goes through his bag of goodies, first moving to A and then back to E. This trick of mirroring chords is something he has used often to great hitmaking effect (take ‘Yellow Submarine’ or ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Band on the Run’ for example). But before he moves back to A, McCartney throws in a passing Bm, a ‘borrowed’ chord from outside the E major scale, before resolving the melody on E. This simple touch creates a glorious descending melody, something he seems to be commenting on in the lyrics over this passage: “This golden circle has a most harmonic sound, harmonic sound.” He repeats the trick in the middle-eight, this time in the G major scale (the shift between the two major scales scales is in itself stunning—a melodic levitation), before hitting home run with a gorgeous harpsichord solo. Some musicians have already performed fantastic covers of ‘Kiss of Venus’ on YouTube, highlighting the song’s ingenious construction.
McCartney closes the album with a repeat of the main legato riff of ‘Winter Bird’, segueing into the instant classic ‘When Winter Comes’. A bucolic meditation on life on a farm; fixing fences, planting trees, watering the carrot patch, it’s also a wistful ode to the life he shared with his wife Linda, hiding away from the world in the aftermath of the Beatles’ implosion in 1970. The lyrics are wedded to a timeless ascending melody that moves seamlessly up the keys from a ruminant minor to a sunny major. The song sounds like it could have been written by George Gershwin.
While 2020 is a far cry from 1970, it seems the world still can’t get enough of McCartney. At the time of the publication of this piece, McCartney III sits atop the Billboard Album Sales chart, ahead of his friend Taylor Swift’s Evermore. On the Billboard 200 chart, their positions are interchanged. With III, McCartney proves that though he may no longer be in the crow’s-nest shouting ‘land-ho’, he remains in the zeitgeist boat, singing to all of us as we sail into an uncertain future.