There are many Paul McCartney albums, but only a precious few get to call themselves McCartney albums. McCartney III is the surprise third entry in a series that began with his 1970 solo debut McCartney and seemed to end with 1980’s McCartney II, two dramatically different records born of dramatically different circumstances that were nonetheless united by a DIY methodology. Unlike the other records in Macca’s solo discography, these were true one-man-band efforts, clearinghouses for the rough song sketches and home-recording experiments he’d never bring to his proper releases. And both were flawed-yet-fascinating portraits of a perfectionist embracing the purity of imperfection. So the appearance of that roman numeral in the title of McCartney III is loaded with significance, a promising indication that what we’re getting here is the man, not the myth. This is especially exciting news for that generation of fans who hold “Temporary Secretary” in a greater esteem than Sgt. Pepper’s.
The novelty of McCartney and McCartney II had a lot to do with the context in which they appeared: the former was a purposefully ramshackle response to the studio-sculpted grandeur of the Beatles, the latter a synth-shocked antidote to the arena-rock bombast of Wings. But while they were solitary efforts, those records were still plugged into the sounds and conversations of their times. McCartney was rooted in the agrarian, anti-psych aesthetic of contemporary groups like the Band, while McCartney II showed Macca having a go at the new wave and early electronic music seeping into the mainstream. On these albums, McCartney wasn’t so much the all-knowing auteur as a sponge soaking up the prevailing styles of the day and squeezing them out, without a care if he made a mess.
McCartney III, however, has no such guiding principle—other than the fact it arrives in a year when McCartney, like many of us, was stuck at home with a whole lot of extra time on his overly sanitized hands. Following a decade where he actively pursued modern-pop relevance through collaborations with Mark Ronson, Ryan Tedder, and Kanye West and Rihanna, McCartney III finds its maker shacked up at his Sussex farmhouse, tuning out the radio to indulge his every scatterbrained whim. With no desire to engage with the contemporary musical landscape or absorb new influences, McCartney III is less adventurous and revelatory than its eponymous predecessors. Mostly, it reiterates his well-established fondness for acoustic ditties, ruminative piano ballads, and hot-rod rockers. And yet it still offers intriguing evidence that, even when sticking to his usual lane, a septuagenarian multi-millionaire pop star comfortably ensconced in his rural estate can still get up to some pretty weird shit when no one’s looking.
The opening “Long Tailed Winter Bird” is the perfect microcosm of everything that’s both inspired and indulgent about this project. Armed with a needling, Celtic-tinged, folk-blues acoustic refrain, McCartney coolly ratchets up the tension, locking into a distorted guitar break while mischievously cooing “do you, do do do you miss me?” It’s a rare treat to hear him lean into something so gritty and tense, but the song is ultimately all warm-up with little payoff—“Long Tailed Winter Bird” flies in circles for over five minutes, always teasing that it’s about to grow into something more peculiar and powerful, yet never quite getting there.
Still, “Long Tailed Winter Bird” is practically “Yesterday” compared to the album’s eight-minute centerpiece “Deep Deep Feeling,” which tries to recreate the mesmerizing sprawl of McCartney II-era oddities like “Secret Friend,” but with more belabored results. Starting out as a torch song about the disorienting effects of love, the track is slowly deconstructed through a random barrage of ominous orchestration, disembodied harmonies, sputtering cod-reggae rhythms, and guitar squeals that sound like they drifted in from a Dire Straits record. But this would-be descent into madness is outfitted with a safety net, too self-consciously “crazy” to feel strange. A similar fate befalls the similarly titled “Deep Down,” another addition to the growing canon of exceedingly horny late-career Paul McCartney songs that essentially gives “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” an ‘80s synth-funk makeover but rides it out for three times as long.
As was the case with the first two McCartneys, III’s eccentricities are best put to use when they’re supporting Macca’s endearing melodies rather than corrupting them. Fortunately, McCartney III has enough radiant moments to outweigh its stumbles. “Find My Way” betrays a very 2020 sense of unease—“You never used to be afraid of days like these/But now you’re overwhelmed by your anxieties”—but offers a pick-me-up in the form of “Savoy Truffle”-style buzzing brass, playful noodling, and a breezy, drum loop that could’ve been pulled from Beck’s bag of tricks. With its glammy, Super Furry Animals-scaled sweep, “Seize the Day” is even more explicit in its optimist’s mission. In an age of cruelty-is-the-point politics, an innocent platitude like “It’s still alright to be nice” practically sounds like fighting words.
As much as the legend of the McCartney series is rooted in its off-kilter sensibility, its most resonant moments remain the simplest and most heartfelt. McCartney III honors that tradition with “The Kiss of Venus,” a romantic lullaby playfully delivered in his higher register and sprinkled with harpsichord pixie dust, but underpinned by a warning not to get too lost in love: “If the world begins to shake/Will something have to break/We have to stay awake.” And on the album’s closer, “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” we get a startling reminder that McCartney’s genius doesn’t merely lie in his talent for orchestrating side-long suites, but in his seemingly effortless ability to dash off a casual acoustic sing-along about farm animals and make it feel both instantly familiar and mythical. “When winter comes, and food is scarce/We’ll warn our toes to stay indoors,” he sings of his critters’ annual hibernation ritual, while also calmly bracing us for what’s shaping up to be some dark months. Now more than ever, the McCartney series isn’t simply a sketchbook dump for its maker—it’s a sneaky vent for some of his most unifying impulses.
Buy: Rough Trade
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