What, you thought the “quarantine album” originated in 2020? At the end of 1969, reeling from the Beatles’ breakup, Paul McCartney holed up at home in London and spent the winter recording songs on his four-track, playing every part himself save for the occasional contribution from his wife, Linda. For the most part the recordings were rough and basic enough to qualify as demos — a major pivot from the elaborate studio cut-and-paste jobs of Abbey Road and the schmaltzy pile-ons of Let It Be. By spring McCartney released these homespun tracks as his solo debut, McCartney. Although widely dismissed as unfinished slop, the album topped the US sales charts for three weeks and was later embraced by some as a lo-fi pop landmark.
A decade later, with his ’70s arena rock project Wings winding down, McCartney once more sought to reset his career with a major departure. Hunkered down at home in Sussex throughout summer 1979, he assembled an array of synthesizers and began toying around with the prevailing new wave and synth-pop sounds of the day, again basically working alone with Linda popping in from time to time. When he released these recordings as McCartney II in 1980, it was greeted with the same chilly critical reception that met the first McCartney release, but similarly was embraced as a cult favorite later on. To this day people still flip out when he plays “Temporary Secretary” in concert.
For 40 years, those two albums stood as twin curios in McCartney’s catalog, milestones that helped to delineate a new decade of his storied career. It’s hard to say whether he would have ever made an album called McCartney III had a global pandemic not forced him into lockdown (or, sigh, “rockdown,” as the album trailers put it). But when McCartney found himself at home this year with nothing but time on his hands, he started fiddling around in his home studio, and soon enough he had the third installment in a trilogy. It’s out this Friday with no advance singles, partially because — in the spirit of the previous albums in this series — there aren’t many obvious singles on the tracklist.
It’s hard to imagine that cycle of initial shrugs followed by late-breaking reverence playing out with McCartney III. At this point any new McCartney material is hungrily lapped up by his fans, partially because at age 78 you never know which new album might be his last. Decades removed from his hit-making prime, most people come into a Paul McCartney album just happy to hear that voice again, content to be comforted rather than blown away. Plus, in context this batch of songs isn’t nearly as alienating as his first two quarantine albums. After a series of heavily produced records helmed by big-name industry hit-makers every five or six years, fans will likely be intrigued and entranced by this set of stripped-down sketches, especially coming just two years after 2018’s Egypt Station. The sound of McCartney — a legendary songwriting talent with boundless sentimental history on his side — messing around in his fancy home studio is actually one of the more appealing options for this phase of his catalog.
Rest assured that he’s not chasing trends this time. McCartney III begins with “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” a scrappy five-minute overture that grows from a heavily rhythmic acoustic riff into something grander without ever ceasing to feel like a multi-tracked home recording. Eventually we get bass, drums, heavily affected vocals, and more. The lyrics are few, but they remind us which year yielded this album: “Do you feel me? Do you miss me? Do you touch me?” The high-pitched acoustic lead work that will be a hallmark of the album guides the song in and out, slicing across the song’s horizon like a low-budget laser light show. It’s a striking introduction that suggests McCartney III will be better than it has to be.
From there McCartney serves up a pleasing assortment of pop songs, ballads, and experiments. Not all of them are stunners, but even the worst of them show enough flashes of inspiration that you can see why he refused to trash them. Among the least satisfying is “Seize The Day,” brightly chiming but relatively inert, like an undercooked Queen song where they neglected to add a vivid vocal arrangement. The sex-obsessed “Deep Down” stretches out one decent idea for six minutes, while piano ballad “Women And Wives” matches a bleary chord progression with lyrics like these: “Hear me women and wives/ Hear me husband and lovers/ What we do with our lives/ Seems to matter to others.” It’s a bit of a slog — the most memorable moment is an unexpected volume change seemingly left in to accentuate the homemade nature of these recordings — but even that one has a hypnotic quality that suggests McCartney can write great melodies in his sleep and maybe in this instance did.
Fortunately, you don’t have to talk yourself into liking most of these McCartney III tracks. In particular, the jaunty “Find My Way” is one of McCartney’s best, most contagiously chipper late-career rockers. As melodies pop up from every which instrument, his falsetto offers some encouragement to a downcast people: “You never used to be afraid of days like these/ And now you’re overwhelmed by your anxieties/ Let me help you out, let me be your guide/ I can help you reach the love you feel inside.” The tight guitar groove “Lavatory Lil” — yes, it’s as Beatlesy as the title suggests — is nearly as winsome. Speaking of Beatlesy, acoustic ditties “The Kiss Of Venus” and “When Winter Comes” wouldn’t be out of place filling out a third disc of the White Album. On the other end of the dynamic spectrum, bluesy rocker “Slidin'” is so heavy it could almost be Queens Of The Stone Age. The most pleasant surprise is “Pretty Boys,” another acoustic track that, in a circle-closing gesture, sounds like McCartney’s answer to Beatles-obsessed lo-fi heroes Guided By Voices. “You can look, but you better not touch,” he sings — one of several lyrics that can be heard through the lens of the pandemic, or not.
And then there’s the album’s centerpiece, “Deep Deep Feeling,” a tense yet spacious experimental voyage that earns its 8:27 runtime via constant metamorphosis. The song is about how wonderful and terrible it is to live at the mercy of intense emotions: “You know that deep deep feeling,” McCartney sings, “When you love someone so much you feel your heart’s gonna burst/ The feeling goes from best to worst/ You feel your heart is gonna curse.” The sonic backdrop fittingly keeps shifting throughout, mirroring the emotional weather patterns that accompany any longterm relationship. There are strains of blues, prog, soul, classical, early electronic composition, and who knows what else in the mix, all threaded together into something like an “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sequel conceived by Ariel Pink and the Fiery Furnaces. It sounds bleak and panicked yet somehow also elated too — like being cooped up with a barrage of conflicting emotions for months and starting to freak out.
Maybe those sensations are familiar to you as we approach the end of 2020. After nearly six decades of public life saturated with McCartney’s music, the voice attached to those feelings will probably inspire recognition too. McCartney III, then, feels like catching up with an old friend as he attempts to make sense of this strange new world. Though the album is not some Blackstar-style bold reinvention, it feels like a document he could have only produced now, under these unique circumstances, after all these years. It ain’t King Lear, but it is a pile of charmingly shaggy songs bashed out for no reason but the love of creation by a guy who’s been making quarantine albums since before most of you were born.
McCartney III is out 12/18.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Vol. 2 of the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack.
• Maggie Rogers’ Notes From The Archives: Recordings 2011-2016.
• Branford Marsalis’ soundtrack for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
• Tycho’s Weather Remixes.