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First Thoughts on McCartney III
This is not a review...exactly...
Posted by Rick Prescott on December 20, 2020

Like you, I've been anticipating McCartney III for a very long time – considerably longer than just since the rumor surfaced back in August. I was reasonably hopeful it would appear way back in 1990, right on the schedule implied by the first two releases.

But by then, of course, the idea of a one-man studio band was somewhat passe, and McCartney's third decade of fame had been very different from the first two.

When the album also didn't appear in either 2000 or 2010, it seemed inevitable that the series would remain a duology, the trilogy unfulfilled. The pandemic must therefore be thanked for scratching this longstanding itch – one of its very few kind acts.

So it is that we find Macca capping off his sixth (!!) decade of fame just as he did his first and second: by sketching, having some fun, and upending expectations. My own level of anticipation over these past few months has been extremely high, a risky place to be. It's probably easier for fans to imagine a new classic album from Paul than it is for him to create one. Not his fault, though. Just a byproduct of his status as Living Legend.

Nevertheless, I'm mindful of the fact that both of the earlier albums in this series are now widely considered classics, even if they can be something of an acquired taste. Both were pretty widely panned on first release, but sold reasonably well, and then mellowed over the decades into the sorts of records we think of fondly, even if we don't spin them up all that often.

For the record, however, McCartney II was one of the first albums I ever truly loved, and it inspired me in ways I still feel today. After hearing what Paul had done in his barn, I made a deal with my music teachers to let me use the band and choir rooms as my studio after school, and proceeded to make my first, rather crude, one-man band album. Though it was no McCartney II, of course, it set me on a marvelous path.

All of that is to say that although I've been listening to this new album nearly nonstop since early Friday morning (when, at midnight, all of the tiles on my YouTube recommendations magically filled with these songs), I'm still having some trouble finding an entry point. I'm certainly not ready to pan or praise McCartney III, but merely continue to listen to it, and see how it grows (or doesn't) on me.

I have some observations to share, and I'm interested in yours.

First, where Paul was a unicorn as a one-man band in 1970, and part of a small clique in 1980, these days you can listen to such artists all day every day for as long as you like. In fact, sometimes it seems like actual bands are more endangered because there is so much logistical work involved in getting the right group of people together, with the right mix of skills/gear/instruments, finding a space, getting some gigs, etc. In your home studio, anything goes, day or night. And modern gear makes it possible for every home recording project to sound like it was made at Abbey Road, if that is your preference. (I now carry a battery-powered, digital 16-track recorder in my gig bag, for goodness sake.)

That fact alone places the whole idea that Pauly did this all by himself in a much different light in 2020. Of course, he didn't actually do this all by himself – at least not in the same lonely way as the earlier ones, where he was truly alone during the sessions. Not only are there other musicians credited, but it's clear that someone else was there twiddling knobs, and tending to sound quality and tech needs. (Hard to imagine that old mellotron firing up every time without some careful coaxing.) And though each of the earlier albums was certainly professionally mixed and mastered, this one appears to have gone through the whole wringer of modern releases, being touched along the way by many other hands and ears. Though still technically "homemade," that designation doesn't mean anything like what it did in 1980. Not a bad thing, just worth noting.

Second, unlike the first two albums, there is nothing here which could even reasonably called "pure filler." Sure, it opens with an instrumental, which at first sounds like just an overgrown "link," but it only barely overstays its welcome (for me, by about a minute). Many early reviews I've read call "Long Tailed Winter Bird" the best song on the album, and I get why people might think that.

I would question its placement at the top of the album, but my third observation is that most people probably won't play this album in order anyway, so the assembly really doesn't matter much. Most will hear it like I did, essentially in random order on YouTube or some other service first, and only later hear it in sequence, if at all. That's obviously just a function of how we consume music today, but it does mean that one tool Paul has always leveraged is no longer available to him. To his credit, it doesn't seem to matter much. These songs are largely self-contained, and though I can imagine a better, more integrated sequence, there's probably no point to putting much effort into that anymore. Nobody really cares. Ah, albums... RIP.

Fourth, Paul's chops are still rock solid. He's as good a guitarist as he has ever been, even maturing into a welcome warmth and ease with age. His keyboards are solid, and his drumming, though sounding a bit wooden at times, is still better than just serviceable. His arranging remains imaginative, as does his recording technique. This record definitely sounds great, and he appears not to have lost a single step in that regard even as he approaches 80 years old. Truly astounding.

If there is a loss, it may be with his voice, which began showing its age over the past decade. Despite not having the same purity as in years gone by, it still retains its distinctiveness, and the subtle rasp seems fitting. It would be hard to accept him trying to pass his singing off as that of someone younger. He has earned the right to sound his age, and it's still a most attractive – if sometimes disarming – sound. His work with backup harmonies also remains as taut as ever. (Separately, I've become a bit worried about his hair.)

But fifth, the overall sound of his records has settled into a sort of "late period" distinctiveness. And by that, I only mean that this album has much more in common – sound-wise – with Egypt Station than anything earlier. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this sounds way more like an extension of that album, and the last few, than it does the eponymous series. This is not a criticism in any way, but merely noting that his method of writing and recording has continued to evolve. He no longer writes or records like he did in 1980, and why would we expect him to? He has forged a new sound, and it is refreshingly contemporary. In fact, there's no reason why anything from this new record might not actually make it onto mainstream radio. Another bit of astonishment.

The same thing goes for his songwriting style, which bears little resemblance to either his approach in the 60s or 70s. He has adopted a few distinctive chord shifts, and a few "lanes," but still manages to find something new with each iteration. Unfortunately, his lyrics remain the most problematic piece. (I may have more to say on this later, after I've grown more accustomed to how his words work on this album.)

Something about this batch of songs, however, makes me wonder if he might not be in a bubble of sorts where a constant flow of positive affirmations allows him to retain something less than the best ideas, and reduces his determination to polish and reconsider. He's within his artistic right to do as he pleases here, obviously, but we know that even a genius needs someone to push back now and then, if only to keep the razor sharp. Again, this will remain a consideration as I continue listening.

The warm reviews this project is receiving may be the most heartening part. McCartney has earned his status, and yet still doesn't seem interested in resting on anything which has gone before. This is, no doubt, descended from his earliest days of fame, when he and his co-conspirators eschewed anything that smelled of stagnation. So maybe it's most significant that the only thing which appears to look backward on McCartney III is its title.

More thoughts to come, and eventually a proper review.

Do you have first thoughts about this album? Please post them below!

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Posted by John Serafino on January 3, 2021
A criticism of music critics while waiting for my clothes to dry.

Rick Beato does a YouTube series "What Makes This Song Great?", where he de-constructs and discusses the elements of popular songs. Rick is "in the business" and he obviously knows someone who knows everyone, because he often has access to the multi-track recordings of the songs he discusses. Beato will often isolate individual tracks as he discusses each musician's sound, style and performance and how these things contribute to the song as a whole. He will analyze the song's chords, melody, harmony, structure, and especially subtle nuances, and indeed tell you why he thinks the song is (in his opinion) "great". I don't always agree that the featured song is "great", but I always end up with an appreciation for why he does.

Granted, most music critics don't have access to multi-track recordings, nor do they have backgrounds in music theory, composition, recording or performance. I think many of them play an album once, if that, and then spew opinions as if they now know something that the rest of us don't. The worst of them barely conceal their belief that if they don't like something, neither should you.

Some excerpts from Rolling Stones' McCartney III "Review":

"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."

Macca wrote, played and produced McCartney III himself, with plenty of his folksy finger-picking."

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

McCartney’s been on a songwriting roll in recent years. It’s just been two years since the excellent Egypt Station...

His current hot streak began with Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his 2005 Nigel Godrich collaboration, which slipped between the cracks at the time but now stands as a major turning point in his story. He’s never wanted to settle for being a nostalgia artist — that’s always set him apart from his generational peers.

McCartney III isn’t ambitious like Egypt Station

McCartney III has that same stripped-down touch — the only duds come when he turns up the synths and tries to rock out. It peaks high with “The Kiss of Venus,” a pastoral romance that floats like an updated “Mother Nature’s Son,”

As he told Rolling Stone in 2016, “One of my nephews, Jay, said, “Ram’s my all-time favorite album.’ I thought it was dead and gone, stinking over there in the dung pit. So I listened to it. ‘Wow, I get what I was doing.’ ” The vindication has to be sweet. That’s part of the charm of McCartney III. He’s not raging against the winter — it’s just a chance for the master to kick back and smile away."

This whole review is about as vapid and substance-less as you can get, and this is one of the better ones. There's conjecture about how Paul felt and what he thought as he recorded the album. Ultimately The author gives his approval to how Paul is entitled to feel now. There's the obligatory Beatles legend nonsense, the obligatory needless comparisons with other past works, the obligatory ambiguous and misleading hit-and-run adjectives ("dud", "brilliant", "best/worst he's ever done", "gem"). It's a wonder that the author didn't find a way to put "How Do You Sleep", Lennon's murder, George walking out during "Let it Be" and Yoko in this album "review".

From The Guardian":

"The disparity between the initial reviews and their later standing suggests that McCartney’s one-man-band solo albums only reveal their true glory in the fullness of time, an idea that whirls around your head when you’re confronted with McCartney III’s Lavatory Lil. A jaunty excoriation of a gold-digger, the best thing you can say about it is that it isn’t quite as awful as its title leads you to fear."

What use is this to anyone?

There's nothing at all about the performances, the recordings, the songs, the instrumentation, the composition, or how the album was produced and sequenced.

But hey, now I know "Temporary Secretary" is a lost "gem", and “The Kiss of Venus,” is a pastoral romance that floats like an updated “Mother Nature’s Son,” and "Lavatory Lil" is a "jaunty excoriation of a gold-digger, the best thing you can say about it is that it isn’t quite as awful as its title leads you to fear."

Now, if only I cared.
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