Paul McCartney, like his hero Brian Wilson, is patron saint of a certain kind of pop artist: a hermetic, immensely talented, and exceedingly eccentric song machine who’s committed to getting every idea down fast, lapses in taste be damned. The indie world, which tends to praise rugged individuality, is fond of these figures. [Read Bruce Mirken’s appreciation of the Beatles’ queer influence here.]
But the difference between McCartney and Wilson and someone like Ariel Pink or Robert Pollard is that these songwriters are massively wealthy and successful—and had to write songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “California Girls” before they could afford to be mad geniuses. Just as the Wilson mythos runs counter to the Beach Boys narrative most of us grew up with (that they wrote nice pop songs about surfing), so does the story of McCartney-the-outsider run contrary to the most common Paul narrative, which is that he needed John, didn’t produce much worth a damn after the Beatles, and spent most of his later career as an unwelcome chart presence. This alternate history mostly skips over Wings, though it’s given Ram a deserved new lease on life.
And then there are the McCartney albums, recorded alone in 1970 and 1980 respectively.
Neither are masterpieces, but they’re the albums that sound most strikingly like the music favored by latter-day acolytes of the McCartney-Wilson tradition. I predicts the simple but melodious music of hermits like Martin Newell and Pollard, and it has some of the same mellowed-out melancholy of a Mac DeMarco. Meanwhile, McCartney II is a celebration of synths and aloneness, less pretty than chillwave but just as fuzzy and blown-out, despised on release and lauded by weirdos with record collections worldwide. It sounds like an album someone would make shortly before trying to smuggle half a pound of weed into Japan, which it was.
Paul has recorded albums alone in the years since. But just as a Richard D. James album means a lot more when it’s Aphex Twin than when it’s other pseudonym the Tuss, so does an album called McCartney III mean more than average latest dispatch from the Paul estate—at least to the demographics most likely to understand that Richard D. James reference.
So McCartney III finds Sir Paul stepping away from his role as living bearer of the Beatles flame and into the shoes of a hero to a younger generation. It’s his first UK #1 album in three decades, and it’s been marketed aggressively (during its rollout, my feed was filled with confused screenshots from my millennial friends showing Paul McCartney “recommending” Good Frikin’ Chicken’s vegan options on Postmates).
Calling this thing McCartney III was a keen marketing ploy, and it would’ve been ballsier if he’d called it anything else. But by saddling it with the name he’s goosed its sales among anyone who’s had their brain rebooted by “Temporary Secretary” in the last few years. It also sets up a failsafe. Any foibles here can be easily forgiven as a byproduct of the McCartney albums’ nature, which is to be unpredictable and creative and not always great, but always exciting. Those things are true of McCartney III, and if you want to think of Paul McCartney as a one-man pop transmission from outer space, III is as good proof as any. But there’s not much evidence that III’s strangeness comes from true inspiration.
Like the other McCartney albums, III is stripped-down. This time, it’s not to its benefit. Paul says it’s that way because of quarantine, but a man with the resources of a former Beatle could make a maximalist statement by himself; it seems perverse to have dozens of guitars on the wall and then make them do so little. “Long Tailed Winter Bird” rides through the well-trod blues-rock territory that’s the default of most musicians of Paul’s generation, but it seems half-constructed, and what sounds like a Casio on a fritz fills in the fuzzy edges that could’ve been—and would have sounded better had they been—occupied by a loud guitar.
This song, and a few others like “Slidin’” and “Find My Way,” sound like a polite man trying to rock and only getting halfway there. The absurd Northern character sketch “Lavatory Lil,” of a piece with a few similar alliterative songs on Abbey Road, proves that the man can kick up some dust when he wants to. Why hold back? And why limit “Find My Way” to such hoarse, owlish notes when “Deep Down” proves his legendary “Golden Slumbers” blues holler is still largely intact?
There’s not much joy here. While we’d like to believe post-McCartney bedroom-pop musicians started making music as a private endeavor for shits and giggles, the real McCartney sounds worn out, his voice puffing out hesitantly like breath under a parka. Though “Find My Way” finds the man insisting “I know my left from right,” “Deep Deep Feeling” paints a picture of deep uncertainly. Draped in noirish spiderwebs of piano, the album’s eight-and-a-half-minute centerpiece makes the predicament of loving someone so much “you feel like your heart’s gonna burst” sound like the worst thing in the world. “Sometimes I wish it would stay,” Paul repeats. “Sometimes I wish it would go away—emotion!”
Rarely has he sounded so vulnerable on record, and the arrangement casts such deep shadows that it sounds like the walls are closing in. But it’s hard to tell what deeper fear is itching in his mind even as we understand there is one. Maybe it’s mortality, maybe it’s quarantine. Paul has always liked to tell his own story in parable, as when the earthy vignettes of Ram add up to the sweeping, time-traveling story of a marriage. But a little less frivolity and a little more insight about the real Paul might have explained why so much of this music sounds so sour.
The best songs are the ones that are just a little sadistic, like he’s daring us to hate his music. “Lavatory Lil” is one of these. The title will put off anyone wary of McCartney’s penchant for meaningless trifles, but the one-man barroom chorus that echoes the first line of each verse (“so much for Lavatory Lil!”) suggests he knows how ridiculous the words are and is eager to rub them in our face. Good for him, and it’s no coincidence the song is the most rousing on the record; it sounds more than anything he’s done since “One After 909” like the work of a man who spent a lot of time in bars before becoming absurdly famous.
“Deep Down” is one of many latter-day Horny Paul songs, but the brooding organ imparts a deep strangeness, and Paul mirrors it through the yowling contortion of his voice. The lyrics are rock-default sexual fluff, yet Paul delivers them with such passion he actually sells them. There’s something a little perverse about it, as if he knows the sexuality of a 78-year-old is likely to turn off his young listeners but doesn’t really care. He must be aware of his own reputation; “it’s still alright to be nice,” he reassures us on “Seize the Day.”
But any self-awareness stops there. McCartney has been prone to baffling musical decisions since the days of the Beatles, but while the lapses of taste in his work usually happen when he’s going for broke, he sounds here like he’s trying to fit together a puzzle with the wrong pieces. Every now and then, he’ll offer a striking image and then interrupt it with a poetry-class crutch. “A row of bicycles for hire,” he muses on “Pretty Boys,” and just as we’re prepared to fall into a “Penny Lane” world of parochial psychedelia, he cuts in to remind us what it means: “objects of desire.” (He’s apparently comparing male models to bicycles; the song could’ve used more, or else less, explanation.)
He chews individual words like bones in his soup: “harmonic,” “anxieties.” Twee-isms like “Yankee toes and Eskimos can turn to frozen ice” do him no favors. As McCartney III crawls towards its end, it takes on a certain grandeur, and it’s interesting enough to convince you that it might be good. But there’s nothing on the order of a “Maybe I’m Amazed” or even a “Coming Up,” and there’s not much else to suggest that the music Paul McCartney is making in 2020 is preferable to that of the young guns who built on his legacy in the last 40 years.