I have a recurring nightmare where I’m a student again. In this frightening dream, I walk into a classroom and am presented with a blank sheet of paper and asked to write an essay about the topics covered in the class over the course of the year. The only problem I have is that I haven’t been in this dreamworld class, ever. I haven’t been a student in many, many years. I’m doomed to fail which apparently means I have to repeat that grade, a deep-seated fear instilled in me by my father. He used to say if I flunked a grade I’d have to live in the backyard. It’d be pretty embarrassing for a man of my age to have to repeat fifth grade. I wouldn’t be able to fit in the desks. I usually awake screaming, terrifying the Rock Chick and pulling her from what’s usually a peaceful sleep. It’s not even my worst nightmare, I have many others. What can I say, for me, Sleep Is Hell. I think the root of this particular nightmare is that lingering memory of returning to grade school after each summer break and on Day 1 the teachers (who apparently were colluding) would all ask us to write an essay entitled “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.”
I’m not sure what fascinating things those teachers thought we children were up to. It’s pretty hard to stretch “played baseball” and “went to the swimming pool” to two whole pages. And, as long time readers know, I can ramble with the best of them. Thinking about all of this, in my imagination, I wondered what it would be like if we all had to write an essay, “What I Did In Lockdown.” This whole lockdown thing has kind of been like a summer break – much of our lives have been put on hold. Sure, I’ve done a lot of writing on B&V, I’ve read some books, binge watched a lot of Netflix. I’ve certainly eaten more than I should and just destroyed a lot of bourbon. I have friends who have landscaped or gardened. I have one friend who is restoring an old MG convertible. His midlife crisis is apparently going to be dangerous. Obviously, the people I’m talking about here are the ones lucky enough to still have a job and who are still able to feed their families. My heart goes out to the folks who are struggling out there… I don’t care what any of you out there have done, I don’t think anybody has “won” this Lockdown, or as he calls it Rockdown, in more a convincing fashion than Paul McCartney. He set his “essay” to music. Last Friday he delivered the homespun gem McCartney III to a world in need of his sunny melodies.
McCartney III is seen as a sequel to two other, similarly named albums that McCartney had previously released. In 1970 during the breakup of the Beatles, McCartney was in a deep depression. He retreated to his farm in Scotland and at the urging of his wife Linda began to record an album, which he finished at his home in London. McCartney wrote all the songs and played all the instruments on the resulting album, his solo debut, 1970’s McCartney. It’s release was fraught with Beatles’ politics and the backlash on announcing their breakup caused critics at the time to savage it. McCartney was also a homespun gem and in retrospect Paul is given credit for inventing lo-fi, indie rock. No one had ever locked themselves in a room alone at home, not in a studio, and recorded an entire album. McCartney has two of my favorite Paul songs on it, “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Every Night.” It also had some instrumentals and goofy stuff. It was clear Paul was finding joy in his sadness over the Beatles in simply creating music. It’s a true classic.
In 1980, after Wings broke up – the band he’d formed in the 70s – McCartney locked himself in a home studio in London and once again wrote and performed alone as a one man band for McCartney II. McCartney II was Paul at his most experimental. He was enjoying playing with the latest synthesizer technology. I liked the first single, the live version of “Coming Up.” Unfortunately that track wasn’t on the album, the LP featured the studio version which didn’t have the same energy. I remember my brother bought that album and they’d hurriedly placed a single in its own sleeve on the outside of the album inside the shrink-wrap so when you bought it you’d get the live version of “Coming Up” too. Listening to the studio version of “Coming Up” all these years later, it wasn’t a bad tune it was just overshadowed. Likewise, the murder of John Lennon 5 months after McCartney II likely overshadowed this album. I have never been a huge fan of II. Critics rave about “Temporary Secretary” but I just can’t connect with that song, I find it annoying. But listening to that album in my brother’s room, I can remember really liking “Waterfalls.” It’s a trippy ballad. “On The Way” and “One of These Days” are also good tracks. It was overall much more polished and “out there” than McCartney.
A few of the things I’ve read about this new album, McCartney III, hype it as a sequel to records “made 50 and 40 years ago.” Yes, its McCartney once again alone, writing all the songs and playing all the instruments but to me it’s a piece with the music he’s been making late in his career. After a mid-career slump that started in the early 80s – and I’ve always insisted that was because he was deeply, spiritually upset about the loss of John Lennon – McCartney hit his stride again starting with 1997’s Flaming Pie. Since then, he’s put out some killer records like Chaos And Creation In the Backyard, Memory Almost Full (which also featured only Paul playing instruments) and New. I thought his 2018 album Egypt Station was the album of that year, LP Review: Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ – All Aboard For The Album Of the Year. Typically we’ve waited four or five years between new McCartney albums but this time we only had to wait 2 years. There was no band breakup to spur this truly solo LP like the last two “McCarney” albums.
The first thing that jumped out at me on McCartney III is that McCartney is playing all “natural” instruments. Like McCartney this album is all acoustic & electric guitar, piano, bass and drums. There’s none of that synth stuff like McCartney II. The record starts off with great acoustic guitar riff on “Long Tailed Winter Bird.” It’s mostly an instrumental track with McCartney singing “Do you miss me” over and over at the end. My mind keeps coming back to that riff. I said early this year that Fiona Apple had recorded the ultimate lockdown album (Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed) but I think McCartney may have surpassed her on the track “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes” which lists all the things around the house we all do to keep ourselves busy these days with nowhere to go. It’s a pretty track. “Pretty Boys” is another acoustic driven mid tempo/ballad that is just super. Nobody records tracks like this anymore – unpolished, unvarnished. Even McCartney’s voice has some rough edges to it that frankly I just love. Like McCartney, this is no “grand statement” album, it’s just a genius practicing his craft. “Woman And Wives” is a piano ballad where McCartney’s voice drops lower and rougher than I’ve ever heard. It’s a stately, somber ballad.
McCartney III isn’t all mellow ballads though. There are some nice feisty rockers on here. “Find My Way” is a pop-fuel rock tune that sounds like a hit to me. “Lavatroy Lil” – yes, ridiculous title – is a great rocker with a great, dirty guitar riff and an insistent drum beat. “Slidin'” is another big rocker. I don’t know how one guy gets this kind of sound. “Slidin'” is just a nasty rocker. Much can be said about the lyrics being simplistic but if you listen carefully, like on “Slidin'” you hear a plea to be free of our current situation. While you won’t find the experimentation of McCartney II, “Deep Deep Feeling” starts with just drums and voice and builds to over 8-minutes. It’s probably the closest to II you’ll find here. “Deep Down” almost has a funky feel and is another favorite here. “Seize The Day” starts with electric piano turns into a nice mid tempo rocker and seems to be a plea for us all to do good.
McCartney has dropped a wonderful Christmas gift to all of us. McCartney III is an absolute gem of a record and a fine addition to Paul’s catalog. It’s the perfect ending to an otherwise miserable year. I highly recommend this one for all fans of rock and roll, Paul or the Beatles. It’s a real return to the roots of McCartney and should rank amongst his most beloved works.
Have a safe Christmas everybody out there. Social distance. And if you can’t do that, hit the egg nog, maybe that’ll help. The year is gonna end in a pretty dark and weird fashion, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers!