What do all the lonely people do during quarantine? Release a brand new album.
[Co-written with Owen Dittes]: Whether it meant binging Tiger King in record time or finding a new hobby, spring lockdown marked a moment of unlikely self-discovery for much of the world — including, as it turns, septuagenarian songwriter extraordinaire Paul McCartney. Dubbed a “rockdown album” by its storied creator, McCartney III marks the third entry in a disconnected solo trilogy that began with 1970’s McCartney and continued with the release of McCartney II in 1980. While those two records were borne of dissolution — McCartney a means of processing The Beatles’ breakup, McCartney II a collection of sonic curiosities recorded after Wings hit the skids — the only thing linking McCartney III to its predecessors is its homespun aesthetic and sole accreditation to Sir Paul for nearly every instrument on the album. Free of recent collaborators such as Nigel Godrich and Mark Ronson to fill the producer’s chair, McCartney assumes the role of renaissance man once again. And although the adventuresome spirit that permeated the first two McCartneys finds itself somewhat tempered here, McCartney III is still a worthy set of songs from one of the world’s greatest living songwriters.
McCartney’s approach to songwriting on the album is encapsulated instantly by its opener. A vaguely psychedelic slice of garage-folk, “Long Tailed Winter Bird” hits the ground on a prickly guitar riff infused with Celtic colors. The track feels unbounded for better and for worse, as hopelessly directionless as it is hypnotizing. “Do you miss me?” McCartney coos, as if slyly acknowledging his continued importance in the world’s musical landscape. The unkempt abandon of “Bird” rears its head again in album centerpiece “Deep Deep Feeling,” an eight-and-a-half-minute sprawl that explores the contradictory nature of emotion over foreboding, delicately paced piano strikes and harmonized vocal embellishments. Whether the track justified its considerable length was clearly of secondary concern to McCartney, for whom maintaining an unedited, as-nature-intended aesthetic came first.
This conceit extends to the lyrics. McCartney albums have always prioritized instrumental colors over poetry — who can forget the baffling admonishment of “don’t go chasing polar bears” from McCartney II’s “Waterfalls”? — and McCartney III is no different. Conceptually, McCartney flirts with some interesting ideas. “Pretty Boys” castigates the commodofication of artists’ images, while in “Women and Wives,” an otherwise straightforward song about generational leadership, lines like “What we do with our lives / seems to matter to others” seem like broad nods to activist communities. Elsewhere, “Find My Way” positions Paul as a helping hand in the face of lockdown anxiety, while “Lavatory Lil” is a typically tongue-in-cheek McCartney character song (perhaps she’s a distant cousin of Polythene Pam?) Unfortunately, Paul occasionally hits an impasse when attempting to transpose these ideas into meaningful, hard-hitting lyrics. The absolute nadir arrives with “Deep Down,” a wannabe synth-funk smoker ringing so painfully hollow that it becomes a genuine endurance test at nearly six minutes. With a mantra as banal and uncomfortably erotic as “I wanna get deep down, I wanna take a bite” repeated ad infinitum, only so much can be tolerated.
One Achilles heel of many aging artists’ catalogues is an inability to innovate; regardless of your thoughts on the quality of McCartney’s recent work, it’s hard to say he’s merely repackaging the sound of his glory days. McCartney III illustrates Paul’s ambition to drive his sound into the future with a respect for the past. Take for example the second track, “Find My Way,” which paints with the same brush of studio creativity and whimsicality that helped create The Beatles’ Revolver, yet boasts production that still feels wholly unique and, above all, fresh. Following suit is “Deep Deep Feeling,” where McCartney appears endowed with the same spirit of adventure that helped him imagineer tracks like “Secret Friend” and “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway;” as with these experiments, Paul travels to foreign sonic frontiers in the quest to indulge his wildest whims. McCartney’s reluctance to succumb to artistic laziness and accompanying desire to challenge himself embolden the album with a sense of purpose that’s sorely lacking from the latest efforts of your average legacy act.
Given the circumstances from which McCartney III was born, it was a foregone conclusion that the album would touch on the pandemic, and the album sees Macca’s much-welcome trademark brand of optimism on full display. On “Seize the Day,” Paul warns against taking life’s workaday pleasures for granted, hinting that they’re often its most fragile. “When the cold days come … we’ll wish we had held on to the day,” he intones knowingly in an uncharacteristically sober tone. The album’s understated finale “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” recovered from the sessions of Macca’s 1997 album Flaming Pie (he sounds so young!), pays off this thematic thread, casting Paul as a farmer battening down for the winter frost. McCartney is no stranger to writing about agrarian pleasures — no collection of the man’s classics is complete without “Heart of the Country,” after all — but his simple words take on a heightened gravity on the cusp of the pandemic’s very worst months. “When Winter Comes” is a rootsy coda that not only ties up the album, but also offers words of solace as we enter a new year rife with uncertainty. It’s a reminder that although the worst is yet to come, the sun is never more than a couple clouds away.