McCartney III Album Review

McCartney III Album Review

Photo: Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

In December of 2020, Paul McCartney released his 18th solo LP, McCartney III. The third installation in the former Beatle’s McCartney album series, McCartney III picks up where McCartney II left off in 1980. Recorded in early 2020 over the course of four months, McCartney III follows the formula established on the songwriter’s debut, McCartney, on which he wrote and performed the album in its entirety. McCartney III follows McCartney’s 2018 release, Egypt Station.

McCartney III, in its earliest stages, was never intended to be a full-length album. Development for the album began when Paul McCartney started commuting to the studio about 20 minutes from his home to work on music for an animated piece. This occurred during lockdown (or ROCKDOWN, to which it is referred on the front CD cover) following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, as Paul McCartney was unable to work on the music from home. This led to the daily practice of commuting to the studio where the album was eventually developed.

The recording process for the songs entailed cutting the basic track for each song using the instrument upon which the song was written, then assembling the complimentary tracks around it. This methodology is perhaps best represented in the opener, “Long Tailed Winter Bird.” The track sees the legendary musician digging into some acoustic leads and gradually building to a steady rock groove. Along with some biting rhythm tones, McCartney also brings eerie overtones by way of the recorder, an instrument on which he’s been recording as far back as The Beatles’ “Fool On the Hill” in 1967.

At just over 1:40 into the track’s runtime, what has become McCartney’s signature drum sound can be heard blasting into the mix, making way for a thick groove which serves as the bed of the track’s instrumentation. McCartney’s drumming style has changed little since his days contributing drums to White Album standouts like “Back in the U.S.S.R” and ”Dear Prudence” following Ringo’s temporary exit from the band. Much in the same way as his former-bandmate, McCartney’s playing places more of an emphasis on feel rather than on technical proficiency.

The sound that the songwriter gets out of the drums, some of which can assumedly be attributed to post-recording mixing and editing wizardry, is incredibly distinct, and contains great depth. An apt simile might be to compare Paul McCartney’s drumming to what one might expect to hear if John Bonham were playing a trap kit and had been instructed to keep fills to an absolute minimum.

Paul McCartney always considered himself guitarist and pianist by trade, and a bassist and drummer by necessity. Despite being one of the most revered bass players in popular music, he was initially reluctant to fill the role in The Beatles, doing so only after having drawn the short straw when the group was deciding upon to whom the position would be delegated following the departure of original bassist Stu Sutcliffe. McCartney, of course, eventually took to the instrument, and would provide the bulk of the bass tracks for The Beatles’ sprawling catalogue of material.

While Paul McCartney would contribute drums to some Beatles songs he wrote himself and would fill in for Ringo during periods of the latter’s absence, most of the drumwork was left to the group’s most senior member. In recent years, however, the multi-instrumentalist has been contributing musically to outside projects in a broader capacity. One such example is the song “Sunday Rain” from the Foo Fighters’ ninth album, 2017’s Concrete and Gold, which features Paul McCartney on drums, drummer Taylor Hawkins on lead vocals, and frontman Dave Grohl on guitar.

Vocals on “Long Tailed Winter Bird” are limited to mood-setting, harmonized skat-singing which reinforces the mood being established by the instruments. The track plays with dynamics throughout its runtime, dropping the drums out and bringing them back in, easing the intensity of the playing then reversing course, and so on. But harmonically, the song never reaches a resolution, allowing the tension built throughout to linger until it is engulfed by the silence of the track’s conclusion.

The energy is maintained with the opening of the second track and lead single “Find My Way.” Of the songs found on McCartney III, “Find My Way” bears the closest resemblance to what listeners likely have come to expect from McCartney’s solo output. With sputtering drums and a reassuringly conventional chord progression in the key of F, the music aligns with the song’s lyrical theme of reassurance. “Find My Way” is unique among the album’s included tracks in that it directly addresses the listener, specifically those enduring stress in light of the pandemic during which the songs were out together. McCartney inhabits the narrative role of what is essentially a guiding force for those uncertain of how to proceed. These anxieties are mirrored when, in true former-Beatle fashion, the song’s bridge moves to the minor 7th, effectively enforcing the lyric musically as it is being presented.

“Pretty Boys” is one of a number of acoustic guitar-based tracks which present as ballads and would not have felt out of place on The White Album. Other tracks in this vein include “The Kiss of Venus,” and “When Winter Comes.” The latter, originally recorded with Beatles producer George Martin in 1992, embraces themes of simplicity and domestic bliss akin to McCartney’s early work with Wings and as a solo artist on albums like Ram, Red Rose Speedway, and of course, McCartney.

Upon experiencing the first three tracks of McCartney III, one might reasonably assume the experimental, slightly unpredictable nature of  “Long Tailed Winter Bird” to be a flash in the pan before the album gets on track to run the preconceived course of a standard McCartney album. Any such suspicions are thwarted outright with the introduction of “Women and Wives,” a mournful, minor-key piano ballad played over a deceptive time signature. The approach to the song was inspired by a book McCartney had been reading about the life of exalted blues guitarist and singer Lead Belly, who directly influenced the baritone vocal style implemented in the song.

Despite the reputation McCartney has earned over the years for crafting whimsically aimless and somewhat hollow music which former bandmate John Lennon famously referred to as “granny music,” there are numerous examples within his discography that prove that the “silly love songs” maestro can truly dig into the human condition when the mood strikes him. “Women and Wives” is one such example, boasting lyrical passages such as

“Many choices to make, many chains to unravel. Every path that we take makes it harder to travel.”

In keeping with the spirit of the south which helped to inspire the tune’s atmosphere, “Women and Wives” is one of a number of songs on the album, along with “Pretty Boys,” which features McCartney playing the upright bass that used to belong to Bill Black. Black, a member of Elvis Presley’s early trio, used the very same bass on the now-widely known recordings of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “That’s All Right,” among others. Following Black’s death during a brain tumor operation in 1965, the iconic bass went unused for some time. In the late 1970s, the instrument managed to pop up on the radar of Paul’s wife Linda, who gifted it to the ex-Beatles as a birthday present. Despite identifying as “an electric bass guy,” McCartney does implement the instrument occasionally due to its storied history and enviable tonal qualities.

If any track on McCartney III lands in the arena of Paul’s aforementioned “granny music,” it’s “Lavatory Lil.” One is reminded immediately upon seeing the title of the frequent, and sometimes seemingly forced, instances of alliteration in the titles of Beatles songs (“Rocky Racoon,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Mean Mr. Mustard”.) Thematically, the song functions much in the way that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” from Abbey Road does in that it presents a detestable and violent character in an almost cartoonish context. Speculative listeners have theorized that the song’s titular character may have been inspired by McCartney’s ex-wife, Heather Mills, though this has not been confirmed.

Musically, the track presents as a shuffling rocker, which brings a little more edge to the proceedings in the face of the song’s title and concept. The bluesy, biting lead guitar tone heard through the song was achieved through use of a 1954 Fender Telecaster through a VOX AC30 amplifier. McCartney has primarily used Les Paul and hollow body electric guitars over the years, but received the vintage Telecaster as a gift from his wife, and saw the song as a fitting opportunity to put some miles on the classic six-string.

“Deep Deep Feeling” follows, landing directly in the middle of the track list, and acting very much as the centerpiece of the album. The song, which clocks in at over eight minutes in length, subtly explores the themes suggested by its title. The tracks speaks to intense, nearly overwhelming feelings of love, as well as unbearable feelings of sadness and dread, the latter which often come about as a consequence of the former. None of this is explicitly stated, however. Choosing to remain fairly vague lyrically, McCartney allows the music to chart the emotional course of the song as it shifts and mutates over its extended runtime with booming pianos, sparse drums, and a thick fog of reverb exacerbating the intensity of the concept. The song appears as a sharp left turn from the bouncy, inconsequential romp of “Lavatory Lil,” landing somewhere closer to Lennon’s White Album-era soundscapes than to McCartney’s own music-hall inspired work from the same era.

“Slidin’” is perhaps the most rocked out number in this set, and notably features outside contributions from longtime McCartney band members Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel Jr. The track originated with a riff that McCartney stumbled upon during a soundcheck in Germany. The idea was developed during recording sessions for 2018’s Egypt Station (explaining the appearance of the featured musicians), but was not completed in time for the release of the album.

Continuing the album’s exploration of the human condition, “Seize the Day” takes a matter-of-fact approach in urging the listener to consider the big picture in their day to day lives. The value in simply being kind is reiterated, but never to an extent or in a fashion which would border on sentimentality or gullibility. In spite of his status as one of the most highly regarded and extraordinarily successful songwriters in the history of music, Sir Paul appears to have retained a certain level of self-awareness over the years which allows him to observe the world from beneath the weight of his accolades while managing not to be crushed flat by them, an admirable feat in celebrity culture if there ever was one.

“Deep Down” runs with the vibe established earlier on “Deep Deep Feeling,” but presents a more focused, coherent idea. With its piano backing and deep groove, the track utilizes many of the elements found within electronic music and lo-fi hip-hop. In fact, “Deep Down” might sound more like what one would expect from a Paul McCartney/Kanye West collaboration than did their actual collaborative effort, 2015’s “FourFiveSeconds” which featured Rihanna. Sorrowful organ lingers in the background of the song, slyly directing the overall mood throughout. Things are brought to a fever pitch by the song’s conclusion, with McCartney wailing over the recurring beat with the intensity of a much, much younger man, sounding like the ghost of Little Richard should it have stumbled into a Jay-Z session by mistake.

The aforementioned “When Winter Comes” brings the album to a close, but not before presenting a Sgt. Pepper-esque reprise of the intro track “Long Tailed Winter Bird” as the opening bit. This inclusion serves as a bookend of sorts for the record, and nicely solidifies the overarching concept of the project.

By means of the conditions which informed its creation, McCartney III is able to bring to the table what so many Paul McCartney albums have been missing through the decades, and what that is is a bit of a reckless edge. A consummate professional, McCartney has always been one to tie up loose ends and show up with something pleasant to the ear. This is partly why McCartney’s early solo work received such a critical lombasting by comparison to his former bandmates.

John Lennon had always served as the “sour” to McCartney’s “sweet,” the “ life is very short” to McCartney’s “we can work it out.” Even the proto-DIY McCartney was criticized for sounding half-baked and unfinished, as all the edge was applied aesthetically while the songs, to some, remained sentimental and trite. McCartney III sees the veteran master craftsman throwing caution to the wind and assembling fresh soundscapes that genuinely push the boundaries of what we know pop music to be. While McCartney III could be perceived as a general set of songs, and a darn good one at that, it may be more accurately described as a mood piece.

To truly engage with this album and listen in sequential order is to embark upon a sort of journey of the mind and soul which bridges the 60s to the present day, not only in regard to music, but to humanity as well. At nearly 80 years of age, the man who wrote “Yesterday” in 1964 (it was released in 1965) not only continues to produce relevant, significant music, but has put together what is likely his most impressive LP since 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Paul McCartney is a living testament to the creative spirit and the distillation of life’s energy into the celestial form of song. The very existence of the man’s substantial body of work as a blueprint is a comfort to those who practice the craft themselves, and to those who simply enjoy listening. But the continuation of that body of work’s construction and development in new and exciting directions at this stage in the game is nothing short of astonishing. The release of McCartney III predated Christmas of 2020 by just under three weeks, and nearly one year later, it remains a gift for which we should all be thankful.

McCartney III Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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