McCartney III is comfort food
As the world's biggest band was collapsing — as John Lennon turned his attention to staging bed-ins and making erotic lithographs — Paul McCartney decided he’d had enough. Following a brief sojourn at his farm in Scotland, he returned to London, where he wrote, recorded, and produced his first solo record in secret. Often referred to as a proto-indie album, the semi-eponymous, single-credited (outside of some backup vocals from wife Linda, it was a one-man show) McCartney was a stark departure from the maximalist pop-rock of the Fab Four’s final works — an optimistic acoustic project made of meandering love anthems and intimate lullabies. It was, somewhat predictably, flayed by critics, who were perplexed by its lo-fi approach and half-baked songs ("Maybe I'm Amazed" was the lone standout). They also seemed miffed at a press release accompanying the record, which — unbeknownst to the rest of the Beatles — publicly announced McCartney’s intentions to break from his three mates, a literal Dear John letter with millions of fans cc’d (the album was also released one month before the Beatles’ swan song, Let It Be).
There was an eventual sequel: 1980’s synthy cult classic McCartney II, which was released at the end of another band breakup, this one of Macca’s group Wings. Yet the record’s maker thought that would be the end of it; there would be no McCartney trilogy. But then, he also didn’t think he’d be spending 2020 stuck inside the house, either. With his European tour canceled, McCartney began writing and recording songs on his own again, playing every instrument and adjusting every mix. He soon realized he had enough for a full project, one that accidentally conformed to the rules by which he had recorded the previous McCartney albums: conceived and made by him and him alone (with an assist from daughter Mary on the artwork, a job her mum Linda had on the previous two releases).
Beyond the song credits, there is little through-line between the new album and its predecessors. The first and II sound like they were made by different artists: bare-bones guitar and piano on the former, a mélange of electronica and Krautrock on the latter. McCartney III (out Dec. 18 on Capitol Records) fits somewhere between the two — a more straightforward, occasionally indulgent rock album about love, life, and future days.
Opener “Long Tailed Winter Bird” begins with a plaintive backwoods riff before building into something knottier. The guitar gets fed through a distortion pedal, dreamy birdcalls fade in, and a whispery falsetto appears: “Do you miss me?/Do you feel me?”
On “Find My Way” McCartney takes notes from late-period Allman Brothers Band licks before adding a harpsichord and horns, as if he walked around the studio trying out the same chords on different instruments until he found the one that fit. Meanwhile, “Lavatory Lil” is a rock stomper in the vein of past Beatles alliteratives like “Polythene Pam.” There is a fair share of misses — the unnecessarily long eight-and-a-half-minute “Deep Deep Feeling,” the ironically surface-level lyrics of “Deep Down” — but, like any contemporary Macca project, III feels like comfort food.
Credit that voice, charming and unmistakable after decades of use. Hearing it anew is like curling up inside a warm blanket. Though McCartney’s vocals have waned some with age, they still shine — and, in some cases, surprise. On III, his smooth-as-silk tenor is often reduced to a humbled-but-powerful warble, pulsing through “Women and Wives,” fluttering across “The Kiss of Venus.” You can hear it again on the playful “Slidin’ ”: “I know there must be other ways of feeling free/But this is what I wanna do, who I wanna be,” he sings. Thankfully, he’s never changed his mind. B