Photo Credit: Mary McCartney
McCartney III is actually the eighteenth solo album that Sir Paul McCartney has put out under just his name. So why III? It’s the third such release on which McCartney plays all the instruments himself (or almost all). McCartney has acknowledged that this time it was largely born out of necessity, due to the lockdowns that have been strongly encouraged or even enforced during the 2020 pandemic. By contrast, both previous McCartney albums each represented a severance from the band which he had been playing in: first the Beatles, obviously, for McCartney (1970), and then Wings for 1980’s McCartney II (even though most people probably look upon that band’s work as part of his solo catalogue).
There’s no such musical emancipation being represented here, and the albums are not really a trilogy of any kind. Both previous McCartney albums sold well, but overall reaction from fans and critics were mixed: that first album sounds mostly like Beatles outtakes, while the second was largely slammed for the over-presence of electronic synth-based tracks. While both contained some good material (the 1970 release did include the classic “Maybe I’m Amazed”) neither has ever been considered among his best post-Beatles work.
Nor is McCartney III. However, like his best work, the album exhibits both McCartney’s trademark songwriting approach as well as his desire to explore a variety of musical styles. Opening a rock album with an instrumental (or at a least song with few vocals) always sort of gives it the feel of an overture, and that’s the case here with the guitar-driven “Long Tailed Winter Bird”, which also introduces a theme that will re-emerge by the end of the record.
It’s not until five tracks in that McCartney goes over fully to his rock side with “Lavatory Lil”, a nod to very early rock ‘n’ roll on which he even overdubs all of the call-and-response backing vocals. “Slidin’” is the one track on which, at least according to the credits, other musicians play – in this case two longtime McCartney sidemen, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. This one was definitely served best as a full-band track, being the album’s most solid rocker, and containing just a hint of the Beatles’ classic “Come Together.” That song, ironically, was mostly written by John Lennon, whose influence can also be found here on “Seize the Day”: the album’s most Beatles-esque track features lyrics like “Dinosaurs and Santa Clause will stay inside tonight,” which are definitely reminiscent of the wonderful nonsense words which Lennon once scribed for songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus.”
Other subtle-but-welcome hints of the Fab Four can be heard on a few McCartney III tracks: “Find My Way” winds down with a very Revolver-era tape loop, while the acoustic ballad “King of Venus” includes a harpsicord solo which jack-in-the-boxes towards its conclusion. In the albums very finite negative column we have “Deep Deep Feeling”, which apart from a great echo-y guitar section comes off a bit too much like an attempt to ape recent music trends, which at a length of eight-and-a-half minutes is definitely overkill.
Although certainly not a concept album by any conventional definition, McCartney III closes with “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes”, which both returns to – and expands upon the theme suggested at the beginning of the record. Of course, anyone familiar with Game of Thrones recognizes this notion as an admonishing of an event that is negative or even apocalyptic. In less ominous terms, winter is also commonly used as a metaphor for aging, and our ex-Beatle is now seventy-eight years old. But the song, it turns out, is a call for optimism in the midst of hardship (no doubt including the realities of 2020): “When winter comes // And food is scarce // We’ll warm our toes // To stay indoors // When summer’s gone // We’re gonna fly away // And find the sun // When winter comes.” When he released his first self-titled album in 1970, Paul McCartney really had nothing left to prove. A half-century and hundreds of new, original songs later, he has even less to prove… But he keeps on proving himself anyway.