He could have been baking bread, Zooming with pals, gardening or shopping online, like much of the world trapped in 2020's pandemic lockdown. Instead, Paul McCartney was, as he puts it, “in rockdown,” making his 18th solo studio release and the third in a series of one-man-band albums.
McCartney III, out Dec. 18, arrives 50 years after 1970's McCartney, the solo debut that established his creative independence from the Beatles, and 40 years after 1980's McCartney II, his liberating reset after Wings. And it pops up a short two years after his well-received Egypt Station.
Time has done little to dampen McCartney's exuberance or dull his musical instincts. III brims with energy, surprises, supple melodies and the singer/songwriter's signature homespun charm.
Scheduled to tour and headline England's huge Glastonbury Festival this year, the 78-year-old “Cute Beatle” had no intention of making an album. But then the pandemic struck and his plans imploded. While in lockdown on his Sussex farm with his family, he spent his days tinkering in his studio.
He explains in a release:
"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."
McCartney wrote each song, provided all vocals and played every instrument, including a stand-up bass that once belonged to Elvis Presley sideman Bill Black, a mellotron used on Beatles recordings made at Abbey Road Studios and his own famous Hofner violin bass.
The album cover art, a commissioned Ed Ruscha rendering of a die balanced on one point with three dots facing the viewer, suggests the vagaries of destiny, a fitting symbol in this era of fear, chaos and rage. But doom isn't in McCartney's playbook. He may get melancholy looking over his shoulder on a song or two, and the vengeful “Lavatory Lil” will have pop detectives scrambling to determine who his target is. For the most part, though, McCartney is reliably sunny and sentimental.
McCartney began the project with “When Winter Comes,” an unreleased early 1990s track coproduced by George Martin. Retooled, it became III's bookends. Opener “Long Tailed Winter Bird” is a lengthy, mostly instrumental number with some of McCartney's finest guitar work, and folksy finale “Winter Bird — When Winter Comes,” clearly inspired by his farm, is a gorgeous ode to country life.
The fiery “Slidin'” finds McCartney both defiant and resigned. “I know there must be other ways of feeling free but this is what I wanna do, who I wanna be,” he sings, then adding, “I know that I could die trying."
He shifts gears in the romantic “Kiss of Venus,” a fragile acoustic tune spotlighting his higher register. “The kiss of Venus has got me on the go,” he sings. “She's put a bull's eye in the early morning glow."
In interviews, McCartney says the song sprang from the pages of a book about constellations and planets. He told Rolling Stone, “The book is talking about the maths of the universe, and how when things orbit around each other, if you trace all the patterns, it becomes like a lotus flower. It's very magical."
Macca returns to earth and 2020 in the jaunty and comforting “Find My Way,” insisting, “I can find my way, I know my left from right, I know my way around, I walk toward the light.”
And then he reaches out: “Now you're overwhelmed by your anxieties,” he sings. “Let me help you out, let me be your guide."
Similarly, the spirited Beatlesque “Seize the Day” exudes positivity and unapologetically announces, “It's still all right to be nice.” The song could be construed as hokey if McCartney weren't so darn sincere as he urges us to treasure every day:
When the cold days come and the old ways fade away
There'll be no more sun, and we'll wish that we had held on to the day.
McCartney's earlier one-man-band albums commemorated big career shifts, specifically endings. Could this be a swan song? Given his prolific output in recent years, and the quality of those records, it's doubtful that McCartney will retire anytime soon.
And the possibility of another bunker disc? History offers a bleak prognosis. And yet, that die could tip in any direction. With luck, fans won't have to wait 40 years or endure another global virus before McCartney IV materializes.