In 1970, following the split of one of the most famous groups in the world, four musicians made their way out of the shadows of their bandmates and onto a new path. For Paul McCartney, it meant removing himself from the limelight and isolating himself from the world. It was only then that he could find an authentic voice, untouched by the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. What resulted was McCartney, a collection of eleven tracks that came straight from the artist’s heart.
Ten years later and the former Beatle, now an established name in his own right both artistically and commercially, broke away from his other commitments with Wings to once again concentrated on himself and honing his craft. Again, eleven tracks were released as McCartney II, and now, some 50 years after the first record, the legendary songwriter has chosen a landmark year to complete the trilogy. Whichever way you cut it, the record is a pure distillation of a legacy that is still capable of not only surprising but soothing us too.
When musicians, and especially rock stars, continue to make music into their later years there are only a few ways things can go. Sometimes they can find a new sound, a new form of communication or almost certainly a new perspective on their own lives. The issue is that sometimes these things can feel a bit hacky, for want of another word. Whether it’s an attempt to stay ‘down with the kids’ and throw oneself into an otherwise unadvisable situation or the artist tries to pretend their still the guitar-slinging 21-year-old they were in good old days, trying too hard is always going to end in disaster. It’s part of what makes McCartney’s new album refreshing.
Every piece of the production comes from the mind of the Sgt. Pepper man. Forced to stay inside like the rest of the world during the coronavirus pandemic, McCartney had to rely on his own talents to create the songs. “I had some stuff I’d worked on over the years but sometimes time would run out, and it would be left half-finished, so I started thinking about what I had,” McCartney shared in a statement.
“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.” But the real joy of the album as a whole is the purity of it: “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.” The songs are therefore not only somewhat irreverent in nature, silly perhaps, but a simple expression of one of the nation’s most cherished songwriters.
That’s not to say that every song on the album is a hit. Despite a piercing lead line, there is a touch of dad-rock confidence on ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’, the album’s opener and, equally, ‘Find My Way’ may have a bouncing melody but sounds far too close to the opening of a Jeremy Clarkson TV programme to be a vital piece of the LP. The real moments of pleasure on the album begin with ‘Women and Wives’. The track not only sees McCartney adopt a lower pitch for his country-twang delivery, but deliver a frank and honest performance that he’s rarely shown before.
‘Lavatory Lil’ offers a fairly decisive point in the album for all those who have not been awaiting the album for weeks. There are certainly hints of McCartney’s trademark style meaning obvious comparisons to the Fab Four. ‘The Kiss of Venus’ sees Macca and his acoustic guitar deliver a simple but rich tune, despite being a little over orchestrated in the final moments as the strings are somewhat unnecessarily added to the mix.
It’s hard not to recognise the connection between a song like ‘Lavatory Lil’ and McCartney’s time with The Beatles too. Songs such as ‘Lovely Rita’, ‘Polythene Pam’ and ‘Sexy Sadie’ littered their albums, and there’s more than a wink to Macca’s pot-boiling style here too. If you were always an avid John Lennon fan, these moments might move away from the good side of absurd towards, as the bespectacled Beatle put it, “granny” songs. Something exemplified by the final song on the record, ‘Winter Bird / When Winter Comes’ which sometimes feels like the cloying sweetness of musical marzipan.
McCartney left on private to experiment in a studio means that he is free to operate on his own paradigm and, when doing so, no genre or sound is off-limits. It can sometimes see detractors reject the music out of hand. There’s more than a touch of R&B in ‘Deep Down’ as McCartney’s vocal gymnastics continue to accompany his vision and alleviate his lack of session musicians, but it may be harder to swallow than others. Still, it’s hard not to see a song like ‘Deep Down’ being sampled for years to come and, had it come from a newer kid on the block, would likely be an after-party staple.
Perhaps the standout song of the album comes from a similar deviation from his hallmark groove, ‘Slidin’, which is a supercharged sound that the rest of the record lacks. Greasy and with enough guts to get your feet stomping it’s certainly a song you wouldn’t expect your average 78-year-old to fire out on his eighteenth studio album. Then again, Sir Paul McCartney isn’t your average 78-year-old. Completing his trilogy of personalised albums is testament to that.
Forget sourdough starters and washboard abs, Paul McCartney has spent his life in lockdown creating his own special brew. The multi-instrumentalist and composer has taken to his studio and delivered a collection of eleven songs, spanning genre, geography and generation which offer the perfect distillation of a true great. Whether that’s your particular tipple is, of course, drinker’s choice.