The Lowdown: Paul McCartney understands the value of a one-man band. At various points across his eight decades in music, the pop legend has put collaboration on hold to focus on albums written, produced, performed, and recorded by himself alone. The first of these (1970’s homespun McCartney and 1980’s synthed-out McCartney II) were dismissed upon release only to find themselves declared seminal in later decades; both records are now rightly praised by later listeners for their affirming impact on generations of lo-fi and bedroom pop weirdos. Forty years after McCartney II, we’ve now got an unlikely third to cap this equally unintentional trilogy. Born of the restlessness that accompanied this year’s COVID-19 lockdowns, McCartney III finds Sir Paul stuck at home in Sussex; fortunately, the homes of ex-Beatles tend to come with world-class recording studios, which McCartney used to polish this batch of quarantine tunes into what would become his 18th solo album.
The Good: In the press release for his latest record, McCartney had this to say about the recording process for McCartney III: “Each day I’d start recording with the instrument I wrote the song on and then gradually layer it all up; it was a lot of fun. It was about making music for yourself rather than making music that has to do a job. So, I just did stuff I fancied doing. I had no idea this would end up as an album.” Fortunately, the stuff that McCartney fancies doing includes writing good-to-great pop tunes and using a lifetime of studio wiles to chisel those sketches into fully formed musical baubles.
McCartney III uses its best moments as bookends, ones joined thematically if not sonically. Opener “Long-Tailed Winter Bird” kicks off with tense, dissonance-filled guitar strums whose cold, rough-edged spareness amps up the isolated paranoia in McCartney’s processed vocals. It’s his most adventurous song in years, one that sounds more contemporary than any of the pop-radio attempts on 2018’s Egypt Station. A different kind of loneliness casts its shadow on closer “Winter Bird – When Winter Comes”; what began the sessions as a salvaged ’90s take coproduced by George Martin now acts as an autumnal reflection on age and all the work that’s still left to do. It’s simple and poignant and an understated counterpoint to its more bombastic opening counterpart.
In between those two songs, McCartney III fills the most enjoyable stretches of its runtime with tunes that are, if not quite transcendent, remarkably reliable. That theme comes up explicitly in “Find My Way” (a “Wipeout!”-quoting ode to dependability that might apply to listeners as well as prospective romantic partners) and implicitly in “Kiss of Venus” (one of those effortlessly wistful acoustic love songs that McCartney didn’t invent but possibly perfected). There are a few more surprises, too; aided with the album’s only assists by longtime sidemen Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel Jr., McCartney jerks the wheel on hard-rock eyebrow-raiser “Slidin'”, whose chorus feels destined to appear over crowd shots at some future football game.
The Bad: Like any project conceived out of boredom and executed in isolation, McCartney III comes with a few tracks that were probably more fun for the creator than they are for the audience. Though it certainly stomps like a decent white-dude-blues shout-along, “Lavatory Lil” and its cautionary tale of gold diggers feels, like Egypt Station’s “Fuh You” more than a little laddish coming from a man pushing 80. Elsewhere, the complaints mostly come down to issues of fit and finish; both “Women and Wives” and “Seize the Day” squander the hard-earned advice in their subject matter on melodies and arrangements that fail to stick while “Deep Down” blows out a spooky, downcast jam that never really develops despite being given six minutes in which to do so. There’s nothing outright bad, of course, but there’s more than a little that’s easy to forget.
The Verdict: Unlike McCartney and McCartney II, Paul McCartney’s latest one-man recording probably won’t be looked at as a retroactively essential genre touchstone (then again, contemporary critics said the same thing about those albums). Rather, McCartney III will likely go down as one more intriguing artifact from this deeply strange year: an above-average quarantine album from one of the highest-profile artists yet to share their lockdown material. Left alone with his thoughts like the rest of the world, Paul McCartney turned solitude into something unifying. The end result has its flaws, but the sentiment certainly doesn’t.
Essential Tracks: “Long-Tailed Winter Bird”, “Find My Way”, and “Winter Bird – When Winter Comes”
Pick up a copy of McCartney III here…
McCartney III Album Artwork