December 30, 2020

Paul McCartney’s New Album Comes Full Circle

By Stuart Mitchner

Since Christmas Day I’ve been in search of a fitting subject for the last column of 2020, a year blighted by a death toll of third-world-war magnitude and the “long cold lonely” lockdown winter-of-the-mind that began in March. But listen! — the sound of thundering hoofbeats, a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, can it be, is it a mirage, no, here come the Four Horsemen of Melodious Apocalypse riding to our rescue from those thrilling days of yesteryear led by the unmasked Lone Ranger, Paul McCartney! 

Yes, like it or not, the Beatles are a pop culture absolute and 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the year they sang their scattered swan song, as McCartney preempted the debacle of Let It Be with his first solo shot in April, and George Harrison launched his November 29 triple-LP blockbuster All Things Must Pass all but on top of John Lennon’s December 11 solo outing.

Now here’s Sir Paul with McCartney III, his first number one record in decades, also scheduled for a December 11 release until it was postponed for a week due to “unforeseeable production delays.” Was the shared release date purely coincidental, or a subtle gesture of auld lang syne to the Lennon-McCartney partnership? Another Beatles connection is put in play when “the long cold lonely winter” of “Here Comes the Sun” is echoed by the new album’s closing words, “We’ll fly away and find the sun when winter comes.”

George’s Song of Songs

It’s time to toast the inspirational song revived this spring by frontline caregivers celebrating coronavirus survivors sent home to live another day. Besides being the “most streamed” Beatles creation ever with over 350 million plays as of September 2019, Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” is the equal of anything Lennon or McCartney ever composed. George began writing his song of songs on a sunny day in April near Hurtwood Windmill, in Ewhurst Surrey, a half century before Paul wrote and recorded McCartney III in his studio at Hog Hill Mill in East Sussex. The connection is worth mentioning because the new McCartney has some irrepressible Beatles moves and moments, as Paul admits in his virtual interview with Chris Rock. After referring to “Seize the Day,” a new song “that suddenly got very Beatle-y” and had him asking himself should he “go down this road,” he decided there was no reason to deny the connection: “It’s what I do, it’s the way I write songs.”

When I’m 78

“Find My Way” is the first song from McCartney III chosen for release as a video and in effect the first single, in spite of the fact that the throwback Beatles energy of “Seize the Day” would seem to make it the obvious choice. Instead, McCartney begins by promising the world that he can still find his way, knows his left from right, and won’t “get lost at night” — which sounds not unlike what a 78-year-old might tell his family as he’s going out on a complicated errand. Even when he shifts to the second person (“You never used to be / Afraid of days like these / But now you’re overwhelmed / By your anxieties”), Paul seems to be addressing himself as well as the someone he’s offering to help “reach the love you feel inside.”

Except for the call-to-life urgency of the title phrase, the inspirational momentum of “Seize the Day” is in the music, which hits its Beatles high, the moment of maximum exhilaration, when the lyric is going in the other direction, to “the cold days” when there’s “no more sun,” it’s too late, and “we’ll wish that we had held on to the day.” The most telling line may be, “I’m okay on a sunny day / When the world deserves to be bright.” Why does the world deserve to be bright? It’s an unusual question in the shoot from the hip element of rock and roll, but then this is an album recorded during a mandated lockdown with people dying worldwide in unthinkable numbers.

Sad Songs

Fifty-five-year old Chris kept after 78-year-old Paul on the subject of age. Framing it as a way of talking to “an older guy that might know stuff,” he says, “You know, my dad died 30 years ago, so I have to take advantage whenever I’m, like, talking to somebody like you.” After an awkward shift in a lighter direction, he asks, “What was ‘old’ to you when you were with the Beatles?” and Paul, who recorded “When I’m 64” at the age of 25, mentions how “old” a 24-year-old looked when he and John and George were in their teens. Asked has he found “a second wind” or is he still on his first, Paul says he’s on his first and plans to live to 100. He also kids about how he always said he’d be coming onstage in a wheelchair to sing “Yesterday,” which he demonstrates by croaking the opening lines in a quavery old man’s voice. In fact, one of his most interesting statements comes in reference to his signature song: “I always had in the back of my mind something … someone said, ‘People like sad songs.’ And it had struck me. I thought, ‘It’s kind of strange, but, yeah, people like sad songs.’ So when I was writing the words to ‘Yesterday,’ I thought, ‘Right. This could be one of those sad songs that people like.’ ”

YouTube blogs bear out the universal partiality to sad songs. Again and again, regardless of the genre or artist, prog or sunshine pop, doo-wop or heavy metal, people will say a song “reminds me of my dad, who died 10 years ago,” or “my mom used to play this all the time.”  Now and then, you get something that stands out, such as the comment I found the other day, posted in response to something not by Paul or the Beatles: “I was 16 when this song came out and life was a big mystery; I’m now 67 and dying and life is still a big mystery.”

Personal Imagery

My image of Paul as the unmasked Lone Ranger was inspired by the photograph featured in the CD booklet and elsewhere: a silver-haired McCartney on horseback, in Johnny Cash black, in profile, radiating stamina and strength; a close-up of the same shot minus the horse is reproduced on the back cover of the CD. In photos spread over 58 years of albums, Paul almost always looks good. That said, there are two remarkable photographs taken during these lockdown/rockdown sessions, both by his nephew Sonny McCartney. These views of the man should warm the hearts and focus the minds of anyone still nursing a grudge against the “cute” Beatle, defamed during the break-up for being too demanding, too superior, too patronizing, too “straight.” The photos can be seen with NME’s “Track by Track” interview and on the website (“Recording “McCartney III”).

In the first photograph, he’s sitting in his work space, in black, his arms crossed on his chest, with an expression so unguarded, so real, you feel like apologizing for the intrusion. The caption might be “lost in thought,” except it’s not that easy. This is a man two years short of 80 feeling his age. He may be thinking of his old mates, his kids, his “Women and Wives” (the track  he names when Chris Rock asks him his favorite), or his parents, his first guitar, of riding the bus to school, or nothing at all in this photographic equivalent of every sad song ever written.

In the other photograph he’s seen from the side, mid-range, all but obscured by various objects in the same workspace background. Again, lost and  loss are the words that come to mind. I also thought of John Lennon’s moving song, “Nowhere Man,” which in turn led me to a line in “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” the new album’s last song, the one that shares the spirit of “Here Comes the Sun.” It’s in the third verse, about planting some trees in the meadow where the river flows that in time to come will “make good shade for some poor soul.” Why was that term so resonant, so unlikely somehow, yet so moving in this pandemic year?

Everyone should see the animated video Paul commissioned Geoff Dunbar to create for a 1992 song called “When Winter Comes.” Besides beautifully accompanying the album’s last track, “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” the video is what made McCartney III possible. As Paul explains to NME, the reason he went into the studio in the first place was to do some music for the opening titles, end titles, and credits, “so I started jamming on the same ideas but lengthened it, and started putting it on a guitar and drums and bass…. So this is all full circle.” And so “We’ll fly away and find the sun” when “the long cold lonely winter” ends.