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Paul McCartney Has Nothing Left to Prove but Is Still Making Music

Fifty years after his first solo album, the legendary Beatle is still hungry to create. His latest work, ‘McCartney III,’ isn’t quite love at first (or last) sound, but it’s still classic Macca.

Paul McCartney is a people person. He initially resisted the Beatles’ permanent retreat to the studio, and on the eve of the band’s breakup, suggested they return to the road. (He had to settle for the roof.) In the decades since then, he’s rarely stayed off the stage for extended stretches. In recent years, he’s only picked up the pace, touring eight times (and totaling 310 shows) in the decade preceding the end of the “Freshen Up” odyssey that was supposed to extend into this year. His serial monogamy extends to his band too: His current touring (and sometimes recording) group, a four-person unit that coalesced in 2002, has lasted nearly as long as the Beatles and Wings combined. (One of its members has been by his side since 1989.) McCartney is constantly sighted on buses and subways. He goes on talk shows, calls into radio programs, and sits for features in magazines, obligingly “revealing” time after time that he sometimes dreams of John and George.

At 78, McCartney is too accomplished, too rich, and too old to bother doing any of this unless he really likes company. Every now and then, though—at a time of transition and turmoil—the people person goes solo. In the past, the precipitating turmoil was personal; in 2020, it was a pandemic. But the result is the same: a homemade record. The 18th album of McCartney’s solo career, McCartney III, came out on Friday, 50 years after his first.

In late 1969, depressed and drinking at his Scotland farm as the Beatles circled the drain, McCartney began work on the album that would become his eponymous solo debut. McCartney played all of the instruments on the informal affair, which at 34:22 remains the shortest record of his post-Beatles career. The album, which he recorded at home on four-track tape, came out in April 1970 and helped snuff the last life out of the group.

A little less than 10 years later, shortly after the release of what would be the final Wings album, Back to the Egg, McCartney holed up in Scotland and went wild with synthesizers and sequencers. The outcome—another self-produced collection of McCartney-only tracks—emerged as McCartney II in May 1980, a few months after McCartney’s arrest in Japan for marijuana possession. By then, Wings was on its last flaps, and McCartney was contemplating a second dissolution at the dawn of a new decade.

The first two McCartneys were savaged somewhat by contemporary critics. (In fairness to the first, Abbey Road is a tough act to follow.) Both have since enjoyed critical/cult reappraisals, stemming in part from their distinctive, lo-fi sounds, which lend them an influential, experimental, and unpolished quality that’s uncommon in the McCartney catalog (aside from some side projects such as his work with Youth as the Fireman). But the detractors weren’t way off: McCartney and McCartney II have their hits and high points, but they’re brief, uneven, and—especially in the case of McCartney—raw compared to McCartney’s best solo work.

McCartney went double platinum—in 1970, anything by a Beatle was bound to sell well, even Ringo covering standards—but McCartney II was a relative flop, which may explain why it took 40 years and a pandemic for McCartney to complete the trilogy. McCartney didn’t intend to make a successor to McCartney II when he locked down at his home in Sussex earlier this year; in fact, he didn’t set out to make an album at all. When you’re blessed with a brain that can write “Yesterday” in your sleep, hooks happen unexpectedly. (“It just seems to come easier to me … than it does to some people,” McCartney recently told the New York Times—a slight understatement.)

McCartney is nothing if not industrious. As he recounted to the Times about the Beatles’ album-making process (in somewhat self-aggrandizing fashion), “Everyone was hanging out in the sticks, and I used to ring them up and say, ‘Guys, it’s time for an album.’ Then we’d all come in, and they’d all be grumbling. ‘He’s making us work.’”

Maybe we all would want to work as often as he does if our minds were magical song factories. Regardless, when you’re a billionaire who has a home studio and is working without a band, being in the sticks is no obstacle. And so, while most of us were doomscrolling or bingeing bad TV, McCartney was writing, recording, and releasing a set of 11 songs, the same output as on McCartney II. (The other living Beatle was busy too; Ringo also has a home-recorded quarantine album coming soon.)

McCartney began by assembling some partially completed song scraps that were waiting to be resurrected and kept plugging away until he had a third self-performed, home-recorded album on his hands—in another opening year of a decade, no less. That symmetry extends to the music: McCartney III, like its spiritual precursors, is a lesser entry in the Macca canon, though not without its memorable melodic moments. It’s a more consistent collection than those up-and-down predecessors, but its consistency comes at the cost of the clashes between classics and misfires that make each of the other albums such singular sonic experiences.

A playlist might make this clear. Neither of the previous self-titled LPs comes close to my personal McCartney upper tier, but if I were to make a 15-track mix of the best songs from the three McCartney records, twice as many would make the cut from each of the first two as from the third. It’s not just that there’s no masterpiece like “Maybe I’m Amazed” on McCartney III; it’s that the highs aren’t as high as McCartney II’s. Even if Paul were still a chart-topping hitmaker, there’d be no no. 1 single here.

However, if I were to make a mix of the worst tracks from the three McCartney records—I’ll spare you that playlist, but picture a nightmare medley of “Front Parlour,” “Kreen-Akrore” (featuring Paul panting and playing a bow and arrow), and a song whose title I’d rather not put in print—I might not add any from McCartney III. For better and worse, this album is much more middle-of-the-road McCartneycore. There’s no brain-melting “Temporary Secretary”/”Secret Friend”–type departure from the past, and none of the whiplash that stems from all-timers like “Every Night” sharing wax with McCartney’s five fragmented instrumental or near-instrumental sketches, including “Singalong Junk,” an instrumental version of a song on the same album (just in case “Junk” is your go-to karaoke track). As George Harrison said of the “isolated” McCartney’s spotty solo debut, “The only person he’s got to tell him if the song’s good or bad is Linda.”

Sadly, Linda is long gone, and her harmonies aren’t here to add vocal color to the one-man show, as they did on McCartney and McCartney II. But the songs still aren’t bad.

This time, McCartney isn’t facing a new phase of his career, so he’s not branching out in a dramatically different direction (or missing as many shots as he makes). He’s stuck in stasis like the rest of us, waiting for the pandemic to cease pressing pause (or stop) on our lives. These songs don’t sound like demos—his recording equipment has improved in the past half century—and this isn’t McCartney III: Revenge of the Synth.

Admittedly, some of the sounds he’s made this time verge on muzak to my ears. “Deep Deep Feeling” isn’t a silly love song, but when Paul repeatedly intones, “Sometimes I wish it would stay / Sometimes I wish it would go away,” he sums up my mixed feelings about the track as it nears the nine-minute mark. “Deep Down,” a helpful reminder that McCartney can party and, uh, “do it right” and “take a bite” (in case you haven’t heard “Fuh You”), is a slightly shorter but even more interminable ode to life without lockdowns. “Slidin’” is a rocker that doesn’t sound as muscular as it imagines itself to be, even though two of Macca’s bandmates are credited on guitar and drums, which seems like a betrayal of the DIY McCartney code.

Things pick up elsewhere on the album. “Pretty Boys” is an acoustic song about male models posing for pushy photographers; it sounds like something off of 2013’s New. Women and Wives” and “Seize the Day” (a song that’s seemingly about the importance of falling in love fast before climate change kills us) exhibit McCartney’s habitually less-than-subtle dabbling with message songs, but they have hooks: The former features a somber and stately piano, and the latter is jaunty with a descending Beatles bass line and a catchy chorus. “Lavatory Lil” is a “Polythene Pam”–sounding takedown of an unidentified woman McCartney has a grudge against (perhaps Heather Mills?). One wouldn’t want to see her coming in through the bathroom window.

Then there’s “The Kiss of Venus,” sung entirely in falsetto with a surprise second-half assist from a harpsichord. “Find My Way,” another one of the highlights, has a false ending that seems to borrow from the real ending of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” It’s also the clearest case of a song that responds to 2020’s circumstances: “You never used to be / Afraid of days like these / But now you’re overwhelmed / By your anxieties.”

The opening track, “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” is an almost-instrumental acoustic workout with a good groove that recurs at the beginning of the last song, “Winter Bird / When Winter Comes.” That second instrumental snippet is tacked on to a ditty that merits instant entry into the McCartney rustic canon, alongside the likes of “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Heart of the Country,” “Country Dreamer,” and “Mama’s Little Girl.” The first few seconds of “When Winter Comes” are shocking: They briefly made me wonder if McCartney had found the fountain of youth. Alas, he hadn’t, unless tape counts as time travel: The song dates from the 1992 session when McCartney and George Martin recorded “Calico Skies.”

On an emotional level, that tape is time travel: As nearly 30 years fall away, we’re treated to the supple sound of a younger Paul’s pipes, free of the current quavery hoarseness that sometimes can be camouflaged but is never far from mind. McCartney’s latter-day vocals aren’t unpleasant, but they can’t elevate the material the way they once did. Unlike some older artists, his lyrics and themes don’t often seem to suit a weathered, strained sound. And when he’s handling all of the instruments, it’s hard not to notice the diminishment of what was once his best one.

It’s brave of McCartney to include an old performance on a new album and draw attention to the change in his voice (not that anyone listening has forgotten the sound of peak McCartney). But this song is why we have McCartney III at all: It was work on an animated film set to the track that pulled Paul back into the studio. The lyrics are a domestic to-do list that hearkens back to life at the Scottish farm where he hid from the world and started this trilogy in the first place. In another historical link, the photographer for McCartney III is Paul’s daughter Mary McCartney, who appeared on the original McCartney as a baby on the album’s back cover. And the last track ties this work to Martin, bringing it all back to the Beatles producer.

There’s a lot to like on McCartney III, though not a lot to love. All in all, this may be the least indelible batch of fresh McCartney originals since before Flaming Pie, although that’s coming from someone who thinks McCartney has had a heck of a 21st century. (I’m also pretty partial to his 20th.)

In terms of average song strength, the McCartney trilogy is the musical equivalent of the Hobbit films: If you’re in the mood for Peter Jackson, Orcs, and Ian McKellen, there are better options out there, just as there are stronger Macca albums than these. But taken together, they’re an era-spanning testament to an artist who’s never been averse to experimentation, indulging his idiosyncrasies, and finding the fun in rough edges, whether through his music-hall numbers, his weirdness on the White Album, or the tossed-off frivolity of “Her Majesty,” which ended his Beatles career as informally as “The Lovely Linda” started his solo one.

Like the multiple McCartneys that preceded it, III follows an ambitious studio effort, 2018’s endearing Egypt Station—McCartney’s first no. 1 album since he was doing duets with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Perhaps the hidden legacy of the McCartney trilogy is the breather each entry allows him to take before his next big swing. After McCartney, Macca made Ram; after McCartney II, he turned in Tug of War. It’s probably too much to hope that another classic could come next. His promise, on “Find My Way,” is more modest: “Let me help you out / Let me be your guide / I can help you reach / The love you feel inside.”

Critics are feeling the love: Unlike McCartney and McCartney II, McCartney III is getting glowing reviews. It may be getting graded on a bit of a pandemic curve, or perhaps its association with work from his heyday is having a halo effect. But it’s more than that: Decades after this trilogy got going, Paul has nothing to prove and no lofty expectations to meet. We’re all just happy he’s still here to make music. And at the end of a year like this one, we’re happy we’re here to listen. McCartney III isn’t quite love at first (or last) sound. But it is a pleasant way to pass 44 of the remaining minutes until society is once again safe for a 78-year-old people person.