‘McCartney III’ is the Beatle’s strongest solo album in decades

Photo of Paul McCartney's new record, "McCartney III"
Capitol Records/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Paul McCartney’s McCartney albums have always been beacons of the DIY-ethos, each producing extraordinarily different results. 1970’s McCartney gave us homespun gems such as “Teddy Boy” and “Every Night,” and 1980’s McCartney II gave us the bizarre, techno-tinged revelry that is “Temporary Secretary.” Since then, the legendary Beatle has continued making music that has shifted more and more toward the mainstream — McCartney’s prolonged time in the spotlight includes appearances on songs with Kanye West and Rihanna, and his musical guest appearances include providing percussive sounds chewing celery for Super Furry Animals.

But Paul’s done chasing the hits. With his latest LP, McCartney III, your dad’s favorite songwriter adds another eccentric addition to his series of home-recorded albums; it’s the first truly good McCartney record of the 21st century and one of his best in decades.

McCartney III is gloriously ramshackle and wonky. The album opts out of an of-the-moment sound, instead indulging in McCartney’s singer-songwriter eccentricities as he pulls more timeless melodies from the tomes of folk, blues and classic rock. “Long Tailed Winter Bird” kicks off the album with a frenzy of acoustic guitar, spiraling into a flurry of drums, flutes and percussive chucking sounds as McCartney signals his return, repeating the phrase, “Do you, do-do, do you miss me?” The song is a five-minute tease full of intrigue, the sound of McCartney’s creative impulses letting loose and refusing to land. It’s a left-field album opener full of distortion and grit, a far cry from the cookie-cutter cliches that have made so much of McCartney’s recent music forgettable.

What unfolds next is 39 minutes of experimentation from the Beatle known for trying anything at least once. Though the song-for-song quality ranges from pleasantly forgettable to inspiring, it’s a treat to hear when the 78-year-old Beatle seems more concerned with the freedom the process affords him rather than the results.

On “Winter Bird / When Winter Comes,” McCartney returns to the role of the farmer. The singer, who once made the off-kilter masterpiece Ram, now spends his time accounting for his duties taking care of the farm before the cold season comes. He also delivers moments of conventional wisdom, from the observational “Pretty Boys” to the piano ballad “Women and Wives.” Elsewhere, McCartney attempts to bring back the blues with tracks such as the cautionary tale of “Lavatory Lil” and a somewhat successful moment of rock ’n’ roll elation on “Slidin’.” The sonically varied track list, while occasionally middling, is a breath of fresh air for an artist who spent the last decade looking for, yet not quite earning, that next radio hit.

But not always. McCartney III’s biggest dud is the eight-minute centerpiece “Deep Deep Feeling,” which meanders around a disorienting mood as McCartney sings about the pain that comes with the highs and lows of love. The track is a slog both melodically and lyrically. Unfortunately, it’s not that deep.

Still, there’s some classic McCartney optimism absolutely worth sticking around for. Stately piano and brass boost the already urgent, uplifting groove of “Find My Way” to joyful heights. With its breezy, roaring guitar lines and light, breathy “oh yeah”s, the song radiates reassurance as the Beatle sings of relieving anxieties and keeping it all together, sounding just as warm and inviting as he is full of conviction. Similarly, album highlight “Seize The Day” glows with the same open-hearted sense of hope that made “Hey Jude” the definitive Beatles song. These are the album’s best moments, reminders of the immense unifying potential of McCartney’s music. At its peaks, McCartney’s optimism shines so brightly that it can feel easy to forget that we’re currently in the midst of one the darkest moments in history in recent memory.

McCartney III works because of its commitment to avoiding commercial tropes. It’s a testament to the creative freedom of a one-man band and the newest installment in a historic line of albums in which McCartney fully allowed himself to do what he does best: let the music take creative control.

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].