Following the Yellow Brick Road
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2020-11-02 21:17:55

    Paul Gets Back To The Country

    McCartney returns to the pastorale sound of his early solo work for a laid back gem

    Every decade should kick off with a Paul McCartney one-man-band album - and this one needs it more than most. McCartney III carries on his tradition of homemade solo records, in the mode of his acoustic 1970 debut and his 1980 synth-pop oddity McCartney II. Like its two predecessors, it’s Macca at his most playful. He’s not sweating about being a legend, a genius, or a Beatle - just a family man kicking back in quarantine, writing a few songs to keep his juices flowing. It’s the warmest and friendliest of quarantine albums - it’s basically Ram meets Folklore.

    Like the rest of us, Macca’s been in lockdown, hanging out on the farm with his daughter, grandchildren on his knee, strumming his acoustic guitar in the English summer sun. He wrote, played and produced nearly all of McCartney III, full of his folksy fingerpicking. Back in the Seventies, one of his Wings bandmates called him “just a farmer who plays guitar,” and that’s the vibe he’s going for here. Paul hasn’t sounded so rustic since his earliest solo days, from “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to “Mull Of Kintyre.” When he sings about sheep and chickens, you know he means actual sheep and chickens, not metaphors.

    McCartney III works best when he leans all the way into the solo acoustic concept. He starts off with the marvelous “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” with a couple minutes of frenzied folk guitar before he even begins to sing. There is also the yacht-rock ballad “Women and Wives” and the Abbey Road-style goof “Lavatory Lil.”

    McCartney’s been on a songwriting roll recently. It’s been just two years since the excellent Egypt Station, one of his finest solo records ever, with the Alex Chilton-style guitar meditation “Dominoes” definitely an all-time Top 10 McCartney classic. Egypt Station was also a Number One hit, and never think for a moment Macca doesn’t take that to heart. It was his first chart-topper since Tug Of War in 1982, setting a new record for the longest stretch between Number One albums.

    McCartney III isn’t ambitious like Egypt Station - like his first two self-titled solo statements, it’s a sonic palette cleanser after a labored studio project. The only duds on McCartney III come when he turns up the synths and rocks out. The album peaks high with “The Kiss Of Venus,” a pastoral romance that floats like an updated “Mother Nature’s Son,” as he hits poignant high notes in his superbly weathered voice. He ends with “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” a hard-bitten tale of farm life. At first it sounds like a farmers’ almanac of chores; “Must dig a drain by the carrot patch.” But it’s also a portrait of late-life domestic bliss with elderly lovers warming by the fire, which gives the song surprising emotional power - like a flip side to “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with Paul looking back from the edge of 78. On McCartney III, he’s not raging against the winter - it’s just a chance for the master to kick back and smile away.

    Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone Magazine

    November 2020


    “Favouring acoustic instruments over electronic, it shares more in common with McCartney’s debut than its follow-up a decade later, although it’s perhaps number three that’s the most eclectic of them all, opening with a long (practically instrumental) acoustic guitar piece and continuing to throw caution to the wind after that – a vital characteristic in making it McCartney III rather than any other Paul McCartney solo album. Inside are vintage, chipper McCartney tracks, the odd eccentric to sit next to Polythene Pam, some big glam riffs, full band sounds and delicate demos, and a brilliant midway point that accurately portrays the overwhelming feeling of being in love and the current claustrophobia of 2020 lockdown. It definitely features some of the best music McCartney has made in years, and even in its moodier moments his optimism, of course, rises to the top. “It’s me,” he told me when I spoke with him yesterday, bringing to mind an earworm from the album that’s hard to shake – a hook where McCartney sings, “It’s still ok to be nice.””

    ❝ I was living lockdown life on my farm with my family and I would go to my studio every day. I had to do a little bit of work on some film music and that turned into the opening track and then when it was done I thought what will I do next? I had some stuff I’d worked on over the years but sometimes time would run out and it would be left half-finished so I started thinking about what I had.  Each day I’d start recording with the instrument I wrote the song on and then gradually layer it all up, it was a lot of fun.  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. I had no idea this would end up as an album. ❞

    Mary on photographing Paul during lockdown:

    “The good thing about this kind of portfolio is you have the opportunity, rather than doing one portrait, to do several to get a narrative. I wanted the narrative to be Dads outdoor style, and also [a] musical [narrative], so we pulled out a couple of key instruments and pulled out the Land Rover, which is called ‘Helen Wheels’. Helen Wheels was the base, and we were driving around in her, and then going back to the house, ‘Waterfall’. [..] I was exploring elements from my childhood, taking Dad back in time.’

    “The day was beautiful, luckily. We wanted it to be outdoors and Dad is very much a nature boy. We’d been in lockdown together, up until then, living back at home together. […] Each evening, I’d cook a meal and then we could all sit down and eat together and spend a lot more time chatting. The background was such a difficult situation – all this turmoil ­– but the one good thing that came out of it, for us, was having this extra time together. He would write something and I’d cook. We’d have a drink before dinner and then he’d play a song. That’s very much how it was growing up. I’m lucky that we have a good relationship. It’s something to be thankful for.”

    “The thing of being a lockdown is that we weren’t at some location in a studio – we were in a real space. I think there’s a calmness about him because of that. And also a bit of rock’n’roll, because that picture with the white Telecaster is the first time he’s been photographed with that. I was thinking, ‘What would be good [that] people haven’t seen? He’s been photographed a lot over the years, so that will be interesting for the musos.’ It’s a present that he was given by Nancy, his wife. I think he told her about this guitar that he really liked and then she found it for him, because it’s always hard to find something to give him as a present. And he’d been recording with it that week – he’s been using it a lot more in the last few months.

    “I love that sunset and the beautiful hand-tapestried denim jacket. That was the very end of the shoot. I knew, vaguely, [where we planned to shoot], but a lot of it was left to the day. The weather, the light and the chemistry… Unexpected moments like that one, where he’s got his [hands] up and the sun’s setting? That’s one you could never plan, because you wouldn’t know the weather would be so amazing. I didn’t know the sun would set on that field.

    Interiorly, he seems domestic, private, a little cagey about exposing the person inside the mask. We can see this in interviews, in his third-party ‘novelist’ songs, in his awkward public reaction to the death of Lennon, in Denny Laine’s comment that Paul always had ‘difficulty’ expressing personal feelings, and in Paul’s admitted distaste for public emoting (he did not go to his father’s funeral, for example - only partly because it would turn it into a media circus; partly because, just like his dad, he never cared for that kind of thing). And the underlying reason seems to be that he is not really very good at emotional dissimulation. So much of his public life (like all our public lives, but scaled up) is inevitably an act, and he can do it when required and when prepared. But he does not really enjoy the stress of extemporising. He is not naturally effusive. His ‘pattern’ can be awkward, or else it becomes oiled to a routine. Why, then, does he perform? He loves the stage, but he does not own it with extrovert relish in the way that a natural actor does. His songs, the durable, transferable product of his industry, do that for him. They are strong enough to survive on their own, but he loves them as much as his listeners do. Who else has a right to stand up and own them?  Who else would audiences rather hear singing them? It is natural justice. Criticism is repelled like water off a duck’s back.

    Martin Shough, Truant Boy - Art, Authenticity and McCartney (via longforyesterday)