“I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all. And he’s never let up. He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm, he can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody, and he can sing a ballad as good as anybody. And his melodies are effortless, that’s what you have to be in awe of. . . . He’s just so damn effortless. I just wish he’d quit [laughs].” Bob Dylan’s interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone from 2007 goes exactly how you’d think it would. Wenner, the high priest of Boomer worship, trying to get Dylan to hold forth on life, the universe and everything, with Dylan batting away the questions with wry, disingenuous answers. Until Wenner gets to Paul McCartney, when Dylan goes on that rambling speech of praise quoted above.
But like everything Dylan says, it can also be read as a critique of Paul McCartney that people have held since The Beatles broke up: a suspicion that he is too safe, too square, his gift with melody too “effortless”. And this is a suspicion that certainly crops up when you hear that the famously restless and workaholic musician has gone and created an entire album from scratch while isolating from the pandemic in Scotland. In inimitably overachieving McCartney style, he’s written, sang, performed and produced the album all by himself. Because, you know, he’s Paul McCartney.
While McCartney III comes out in early December, what is interesting is the way that he has positioned the album—as the final in a trilogy of similar solo efforts. The first was McCartney from 1970, released just as The Beatles were falling apart in a fug of acrimony. Then there was McCartney II in 1980, a musical palette cleanser, even as his mega-successful 70s band, Wings, was winding up. The fact that, in the 40 years since, he hasn’t seen it fit to spring a McCartney III earlier, might suggest that he never really thought of a series of such albums. Until, that is, a global pandemic happened.
Speaking to the music site Loud and Quiet on 21 October, McCartney admits as much. “It was kind of unintentional. I had to go into the studio at the beginning of lockdown to do a couple of bits of music for an animated short film. So I got in and did that bit of work and sent it off to the director, and then I thought, ‘Oh, this is nice, I’m enjoying this, this is a nice way to spend lockdown,’ so I ended up finishing off some songs, looking at bits and bobs, making up stuff, and generally enjoying myself in the studio.” After stockpiling a number of tracks over the months, he decided that he’ll release the songs as an album and call it McCartney III because the album’s process was similar to the earlier two albums, where he had also played all the instruments and had handled the production himself. “The common denominator is that I had a lot of time suddenly,” he says, quite revealingly.
Because Paul McCartney cannot have a lot of time on his hands and just, like, read a few books or watch TV. And since he always has a surfeit of music and melodies sloshing about in his brain, he has to get them out and on tape. Since 1970, McCartney has released 25 albums with the Wings and as a solo artist. Apart from mainstream releases—his last album Egypt Station in 2018 topped the US charts—he has produced two movie soundtracks, five classical albums, two electronica albums and three albums as The Fireman, in association with Killing Joke bassist and producer Youth. That’s a lot of music after you’ve spent a decade as one of the principal singer-songwriters in The Beatles! In between all this frenetic activity (and sold out world tours) he’s been knighted, has had an asteroid named after him (as well as a rose), has been awarded the Gershwin Prize for music and a Kennedy Centre Honor for his contributions to American culture. One would imagine that, at 78, Paul McCartney has nothing left to prove.
But that would be to underestimate the fierce competitive streak that runs under the affable and cuddly persona of the grandfather of eight. More than his love for “silly love songs”, his unrelenting optimism and his public glibness, it was this competitiveness that had defined The Beatles’ rise to global deification while McCartney was still a young man in his early twenties. It was the same competitiveness that made them single-minded in their focus on crafting number 1 hits year after year. Some of their peers, like the bona fide genius Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, suffered a nervous breakdown just trying to keep up, while The Rolling Stones didn’t really manage to come into their own until The Beatles broke up.
Since 1970, McCartney has been equally relentless, hit single following hit album following world tours each year like clockwork. Right from his Beatles days, McCartney peppered his songs with atonal drones when avante-garde was hot (‘Getting Better’), with Motown horns (‘Got to Get You into My Life’) with glitter and bombast when glam was hot (‘Jet’), with club beats and angular synthesizers when disco and new wave hit (‘Temporary Secretary’), dueting with Michael Jackson during the latter’s Thriller pomp (‘That Girl is Mine’) or with Kanye West and Rihanna (‘Four Five Seconds’). Welding these “gimmicks”, as John Lennon called them, to McCartney’s own unerring mastery of song-craft and melody, he has had a song and hit for every season, for decades. And you thought a global pandemic would slow him down?
What is often overlooked by music critics in this parade of success is McCartney’s multi-faceted musical skills. For starters, he possess one of the most iconic voices in rock and pop, able to go from a croon to a falsetto to a manic roar during the course of one album (Band on the Run), sometimes even the same song (‘Golden Slumbers’). A disciple who studied at the literal feet of Little Richard, he can out-falsetto Barry Gibb, out-scream Steven Tyler and out-croon Frank Sinatra. His bass playing is one of the most influential in pop (‘Rain’, ‘Silly Love Songs’). His melodies shift key and modulate brilliantly, shading light and dark in lines that lift you up in euphoria or dump you in sorrow long before you work out how he’s doing it (‘For No One’, ‘The End’, ‘Riding to Vanity Fair’). And when he puts his mind to it, his lyric writing can be devastating (‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Another Day’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’). What makes McCartney such an effective composer and performer is his ability to meld each of these disparate qualities in the service of a three-minute pop song.
Both McCartney and McCartney II are deeply odd and eccentric. The first one is a willful repudiation of all the things that fans associated with The Beatles: perfectly crafted songs, impeccable production, not a note out of place. Instead McCartney mirrors McCartney’s descent into depression at the breakup of his band with musical odds and ends, and incomplete blues riff here, another ad hoc instrumental there, lyrics that are mere snapshots of ideas, sometimes just doggerel. It’s an aural depiction McCartney working his way through a very low point in his life.
In the midst of all the weirdness are two absolute gems, ‘Every Night’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. Both are filled with self-doubt, both seek solace in love while at the same time doubting if he’s even worthy of anyone’s love. The songs are stunning in their emotional weight. “Maybe I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man who’s in the middle of something, that he doesn’t really understand” he sings in ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, his voice as raw as his nerve endings. Both this album and its follow-up Ram, have now become touchstones of low-fi indie artists. You’d find some of the same sentiments and approach to music-making in Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.
Ten years later, in McCartney II , there’s no such soul-searching. Rather, it is the perfect example of McCartney saying “I’ll how them!” to all the new upstarts with synthesizers populating the music charts. Home recording technology had improved by 1980, so the album sounds more polished, but it’s still all McCartney, often accompanied with nothing more than a synthesizer, a snare drum and an acoustic guitar. Among the standouts is the brilliant slice of post punk that is ‘Coming Up’. Married to a Talking Heads-like guitar line, soul horns, synth lines and a disco beat, McCartney falsettos away to his heart’s content. It is a brilliant dance track. The other highlight is ‘Temporary Secretary’ a sexist ditty sang in the persona of a Wall Street big shot, awash in angular synthesizer lines, odd blips and bloops, strange snare sounds and profoundly manic. On the other end of the spectrum is the beautiful, sparse ballad ‘Waterfalls’ and a song like ‘Frozen Jap’ which sounds like an Animal Collective outtake.
Since 1980, one of the reasons why McCartney hasn’t had to make a McCartney III is because there’s plenty of that oddball whimsy on two excellent albums from the last decade. The first of these was the classic Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005). Chaos too was McCartney working on his own, under the watchful eye of Radiohead and Beck producer Nigel Godrich. Sixty-three at the time, McCartney had mortality and bitterness on his mind, writing such gorgeously downbeat and misanthropic songs like ‘Friends to Go’ and ‘Riding to Vanity Fair’. In the former, he’s hiding out from his partner’s friends, who he has no intention of meeting. In the latter, somebody has angered him enough that he’s gone into full passive aggressive mode, spitting out “I wouldn’t dare to presume” all over the place in a deliciously dark chorus bookended with ominous strings. Then there’s ‘Jenny Wren’, the musical child of ‘Blackbird’, where he sings about another fragile bird with broken wings who’s learning to fly over a hushed finger-picked acoustic guitar. On the almost satirically English setting of ‘English Tea’, he sings of “miles and miles of English garden, stretching ‘cross the willow tree”, while sending up his own public persona with “very twee, very me”.
Even stranger is Electric Arguments (2008), his third and final album as The Fireman. Freed of the need to be Paul McCartney the dependable hitmaker, the album is deeply weird. It opens with the heavy, distorted and rage-filled opus ‘Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight’. McCartney rants and raves over a thundering track that sounds like Led Zeppelin played through sludgy water, before the song disintegrates in a crescendo of simian yelps and growls. ‘Two Magpies’ starts out sounding like a Mississipi blues before shape-shifting into a falsetto croon backed by a ramshackle guitar and bass. Then there’s the brilliant ‘Travelling Light’ all spacey atmospherics and mellotron lines, while McCartney sings what sounds like a timeless folk song dressed up with modern production. Towards the end it abruptly changes key and the song soars, “I’ll be travelling tonight, oh, across the sea, where she waits, she waits for me.”
It remains to be seen if McCartney III will be a similar detour or a standard McCartney album. Speaking to Loud and Quiet, McCartney says of the album, “It’s to do with freedom and love. There’s a varied lot of feelings on it, but I didn’t set out for it to all be like, ‘This is how I feel at this moment.’ The old themes are there, of love and optimism. ‘Seize the Day’—it’s me. That’s the truth.” However it may turn out, it will certainly provide one more opportunity to give thanks for the fact that McCartney is still out there, still making music. It’s been a long and winding career for a man who was rumoured to have died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and replaced with a doppelgänger. McCartney will likely never retire. Nor does he want to. As he says, “When we did Abbey Road I was dead, so everything else is a bonus.”