- 18 Dec 20
Hints Of Greatness
History has been very kind to those other two D.I.Y. albums, McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980), although they got a fair kicking when they came out. This was, perhaps, understandable when it came to that first release after the band broke up. We are, after all, talking about Beatle Paul, the main driving force behind the glories of Sgt. Pepper’s and side two of Abbey Road so one can hardly blame listeners who put the needle down on slight, half-formed sketches such as ‘Valentine Day’ or ‘Kreen-Akore’ and found them a bit lacking. That having been said, ‘Every Night’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ are stone cold classics from one of the greatest songwriters to ever pick up a pen. Retrospective reviews have referred to it as the first indie album – although that might have been McCartney himself - or the first lo-fi album, but this might be excusing some half-arsery as high art. It certainly has its charms though.
McCartney II – also played, sung, and produced single-handedly by the man himself - is, to these ears at least, tougher going. It’s McCartney’s synth album influenced by the new wave records he was hearing at the time, as well as – he said – modern classical composers. Apologists have, again retrospectively, claimed greatness for the blippety likes of ‘Temporary Secretary’ but it’s lost on me. Mind you, any record with ‘Coming Up’ and the gorgeous ‘Waterfalls’ on it can hardly be classed as bad.
A side note here. The pedantic in the audience might wish to rename 2005’s marvellous Chaos and Creation In the Backyard as McCartney II.5. It’s a solo career highlight where Radiohead and Beck man, Nigel Godrich, gave Macca a kick in the artistic hole, resulting in songs as great as ‘Riding To Vanity Fair’ and ‘Jenny Wren’, and McCartney played nearly all of it himself, so it qualifies under the grandparents rule. The key difference here is there was someone, anyone, in the producer’s chair who was willing to gee him on to be the genius we all know he is, and not settle for the merely good.
Number Three, Number Three, Number Three
All this waffling brings us to McCartney III. Like the rest of us, this modern day Mozart had a bit of time on his hands in 2020, although he most likely had nicer surroundings in which to spend it, so earlier in the year he recorded this collection of songs, with just the help of the odd engineer. Here’s how the auteur described the process, “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.” So is it a case of chasing greatness, or just some superstar-faffing-about?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. The record kicks off pleasingly enough with the mostly instrumental ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ built around a bluesy acoustic guitar figure. It’s hardly a major addition to the canon, but it’s not bad either, although he might have spent a bit longer on the pen-and-paper stage of its construction. ‘Find My Way’ is catchy – something that has never let McCartney down, whether he was singing to John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, a gaggle of frogs, or a Scottish peninsula – but again, it’s a bit slight. Lyrically, it seems to acknowledge the shit storm we’ve all been suffering through, “you never used to be, afraid of days like these, but now you’re overwhelmed, by your anxieties” or perhaps it’s something more personal. He’s talented like that.
‘Pretty Boys’ – sung from the viewpoint of a photographer, taking shots of male models – is a different matter. It sounds simple enough but that has always been McCartney’s genius, making the simple sound fantastical, and vice-versa. I’ve had this stuck in my head for a week, it might be the circular guitar figure, it might be the bah-bah-bah backing vocals, but it got under my skin in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, as all his better songs have. He’s able to do that kind of thing.
‘Women And Wives’ is equally strong, build on some minor piano chords, with a lyric about how what we do affects others. At a push, it’s the kind of stately thing you could perhaps imagine Dylan, or Nick Cave or maybe even Leonard Cohen essaying, albeit with a slightly different vocal approach. ‘Lavatory Lil’, on the other hand, sounds like a forced attempt at some Abbey Road ‘Polythene Pam/Mean Mr Mustard’ off-handedness. A producer with steel would have put it in the bin. Especially as it comes just before the album’s eight-and-a-half-minute centrepiece, ‘Deep Deep Feeling’. If you were going to play one song for doubters to prove that McCartney is still worth their time, this is probably it.
I've Got A Feeling
It starts with a drum beat and builds slowly as McCartney sings of the pain of love, when you love almost becomes too much to take. A piano chords somewhere in the background as strings that wouldn’t be out of place on a Massive Attack record swirl in and out, illustrating the “deep, deep pain of feeling”. At about 2:30 the beat changes, a guitar comes in, “sometimes I wish it would stay, sometimes I wish it would go away”, and you start to agree with him, to feel what he’s feeling, and remember those same emotions from your own life. The acoustic coda, when it breaks through and the voice falls away, offers some sort of accepting resolution.
‘Slidin’’ sounds like it has bled in from The Black Keys recording in the next room, and they’re not at their best either, but then the chorus, when the voice goes up the scale, “slidin’ through the air”, comes in and almost redeems the song. That voice handles things differently on ’The Kiss Of Venus’, reaching for high notes, which, while they’re not completely gone, are not as robust as they once were, but it adds to, rather than detracts from, the effect. It’s a distant cousin of acoustic career spikes like ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Calico Skies’, ‘Jenny Wren’ and many others, and like those songs, it's charming and lovely, with the harpsichord which arrives near its end only adding to the gossamer feel. This is the kind of song that he most likely plays for people on an acoustic guitar, half-finished, and casually asks what they think, only to have them sit staring at him, agog, baffled by why the gods blessed this man so much, and ignored the rest of us.
‘Seize The Day’ is another track lifted by a middle-eight that’s better than the rest of it. Again, the lyric about living life to the full could have done with more of a shove, but it’s grand, which is faint praise I know, but that’s what it merits. The lyrics of ‘Deep Down’ make what preceded it sound like an undiscovered volume of Yeats, with it’s insistence that he wants to “party every night”, and as for the arrangement, here is one place where perhaps he should have brought in some help. If actual brass had replaced the keyboard stabs, it would have improved things no end. It also goes on far too long.
The record ends back where we started, and also way back where solo Paul came in. There’s a snatched reprise of the figure from ‘Winter Bird’ and then he goes into ‘When Winter Comes’, which was apparently written for some abandoned project years back – George Martin is mentioned as being involved in the credits. This we’re-happy-down-on-the-farm, I-must-fix-that-fence slice of simplistic greatness would have fitted seamlessly in with the domestic bliss of McCartney or Ram. It’s as corny as all get out but it illustrates McCartney’s effortless ability to elevate the personal to the universal. It could also be written for a world in lockdown, extolling the virtues of doing things around the gaff, and finding some peace in it. It’s a casual flourish from a master.
Let 'Em In
I give quarter to no one in my adoration of McCartney, and I’m not just talking about The Beatles either, the band in which he was unquestionably the main man. Yes, Lennon was great, but he shone brightest when McCartney was there with him, and you can check the majority of his solo records if you don’t believe me. I honestly think he needed Paul more than Paul needed him, but Paul does need someone.
It could, like the other two (or three) “solo” records, be a grower that reveals its charms only in the fullness of time, and I could be the guy quoted on Wikipedia in fifty-years, only to be laughed at as the dolt who didn’t quite get it. The I-can-do-it-allness of this series of records is, of course, impressive and beyond the abilities of almost anyone else you might mention, but McCartney does his best work when there is someone pushing against him, and again, I’m not just talking about the sixties. It happened with Godrich, Elvis Costello and even a returning George Martin on half of Tug Of War. Wings was, I’m sure, a benign dictatorship, but there were at least other people in room when he recorded Band On The Run. This is an interesting record – I’d listen to McCartney singing the collected works of Westlife, possibly – with some great moments, but it’s not the masterpiece we might have hoped for, and the one I suspect he still has in him.