Reduced like everyone else to living under lockdown rules and regulations during 2020, Paul McCartney hunkered down at Hog Hill Mill, his private studio in the village of Icklesham, near his Peasmarsh farm in East Sussex, to record a third solo album in the strict sense of the term. Aside from the front cover design and photographs by his daughter Mary, he does everything on McCartney III; writes, plays and produces, and like the two previous albums that bore his name alone, it’s a varied assortment that’s been creeping up on me since I found it beneath the tree on Christmas morning.
My relationship with post-Beatle Paul is by no means all-embracing. I gave up somewhere along the line, probably around the time of ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, and it’s been patchy ever since. In 1971 I was given Ram to review on Melody Maker and was a bit sniffy, writing: “I expected his solo albums to be better than those of his three former colleagues. Unfortunately, this is not the case. His first solo effort, with the exception of one track (‘Maybe I’m Amazed’) completely lacked the McCartney magic and now his second, called simply Ram, although much better than the first, fails, in my opinion, to match up to those of Harrison and Lennon.”
Paul didn’t take offence and I was invited to interview him and Linda while they were recording the follow up, Wild Life, another bitty affair. Only later did I conclude that ‘Dear Friend’ from that LP was as lovely as anything he’d ever written, and the same now goes for ‘Uncle Albert’/‘Admiral Halsey’, a ‘Playful Paul’ segue that has become my favourite track from Ram. Many such post-Beatle McCartney songs have a tendency to hide away like sleeper agents before belatedly announcing hidden virtues that were somehow lost on early hearings. Of course, the same cannot be said of the imperious Band On The Run, which I played to death, but thereafter, disappointed, I began to lose interest. More recently I chanced my arm with Flaming Pie, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard and New with mixed results, only the odd song standing out. If the true test of an album is how often it is played after the first few weeks of ownership, then none of those three really made the grade.
Meanwhile Paul had reclaimed The Beatles as his own, performing concerts in vast stadiums where his crack band reproduce that magnificent catalogue of songs in all their glory, every guitar lick in place, every vocal inflection and background harmony as near perfect as you would expect from this consummate professional. Audiences loved it, and though the odd new song was occasionally introduced into his repertoire, like so many genuine legends of his vintage he found himself embarking on two separate careers, one as a composer of new songs and the other as a performer of old ones.
So, what to make of McCartney III? The omens are good. The opener, the largely instrumental ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ has a Celtic flavour, with crisp descending acoustic guitar lines winding down into a rhythmic stew where a bodhrán and even a hint of Africa might be lurking. It’s a bold, un-McCartney-esque start. ‘Find My Way’, which follows, is a return to more familiar territory, a pleasing pop melody that, while not a single as such, has been illustrated by a split-screen video that shows the master at his craft, on various keyboards, including – I think – a harpsichord, acoustic guitar, two electric guitars, drums, vocals, tape ops and, of course, that familiar Hofner bass.
‘Pretty Boys’, the first of four acoustic ballads herein, might be a comment on the vacuity of boy bands recruited solely on the strength of their looks – ‘They can talk but they never say much’ – but McCartney has never been one to throw daggers in that direction, so I’ll sit back and enjoy its simple, effective melody. The mood drops for ‘Women And Wives’, a sombre piano led piece that I suspect will grow on me, but shifts into the absurd for ‘Lavatory Lil’, a lapse in taste that’s probably a joke, a sort of ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ sequel about a shameless gold-digger, set to a monotonous blues beat shuffle. Indistinguished springs to mind.
All is redeemed, however, on ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, the album’s centrepiece, a complex, eight-and-a-half minute exploration of McCartney’s gift for imaginative musical adventure. A meditation on the inexplicable nature of romantic love, it meanders through instrumental passages, tempo shifts and vocals that range from bass(ish) to falsetto, with an acoustic guitar coda as lovely as anything on the album.
Listening to McCartney in the 21st Century, there is sometimes a temptation to think, what would John have thought? Well, he’d have approved of ‘Slidin’’, a bluesy rocker with a touch of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ from Imagine about it. The guitar riff sounds like something from the White Album sessions, and Paul offers up a truly great guitar solo to launch the final verse.
‘The Kiss Of Venus’ is another pretty acoustic ballad, the kind of song McCartney seems to be able to knock off his sleep, while ‘Seize The Day’, which opens with a variation on Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ piano riff, is yet another example of pop perfection, its chorus the nearest thing to a sing-along on the album. ‘It’s still alright to be nice,’ sings Paul, in affirmation of the character trait he’s defended for so long.
No McCartney album in the autumn of his years would be complete without a stab at experimentation and it arrives late in the day on ‘Deep Down’, a slow, synth-led, musical probe that’s more interesting musically than it is lyrically. Vocal lines intermingle over five minutes of electronic musing, and while Paul intones his need to party down it’s not what I'd call party music.
The album closes where it began, the guitar riff from ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ leading onto ‘When Winter Comes’, another gorgeous acoustic ballad, this one more gorgeous than ever in fact. Paul sings about the changing seasons from the point of a view of the farmer he’s become on his land at Peasmarsh, the view from the studio where McCartney III was recorded.
In 2020 Paul McCartney was to have headlined at Glastonbury, no doubt finishing his set with ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Let It Be’ while 100,000 fans of all ages sang along with him and few million more watched it on TV. My clever daughter and a few of her friends somehow obtained tickets, and she’s hung on to them in the hope there’ll be a Glastonbury 2021. I hope she’s there at the end of June to hear Paul air some songs from McCartney III.