Music

Paul McCartney Is Still Making Great Music. So Why Do We Take Him For Granted?

While you haven't been paying attention, McCartney's 21st century albums have stacked up to become an impressively consistent, easily overlooked body of work.
IMAGE ELAINE CHUNG
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In 1970, Paul McCartney was in crisis. The Beatles were falling apart. Who was he without his bandmates and what kind of music would he make? He banged out a bunch of songs in isolation, playing all the instruments himself and recording on basic equipment, and released the results under the title McCartney.

In 1980, Paul McCartney was in crisis. He had just broken up his band, Wings, after he got busted in Japan for marijuana possession and spent nine days in jail. Now what was he supposed to do? He dug up some home recordings he had made the previous summer—experimental sketches, largely built on synthesizers—and released the results under the title McCartney II.

Both of these albums were vilified by critics, considered much too slight coming from such a Major Artist; the second was described at the time as “arguably the least well-received solo work of any Beatle.” Over time, though, both have been re-evaluated and risen in esteem. McCartney is considered an early example of the lo-fi indie spirit, while the unquestionably weird McCartney II is now seen as an influence on synth-pop.

In 2020, Paul McCartney was in crisis. Only this time, we all were. A 78-year-old man locked down by the pandemic, he turned, yet again, to recording some songs entirely on his own, with no sense of where it was headed; he says his goal was “making music for yourself rather than making music that has to do a job.” He has released the results under the title McCartney III—and if the album isn’t as surprising as its two predecessors, it’s certainly more immediately satisfying.

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At this point, there’s very little Paul McCartney hasn’t done. This is his 25th solo album, plus five classical projects, five electronic-based albums (mostly under the quasi-alias The Fireman), nine live albums…and then there are his paintings and his children’s books and his poetry and on and on. He’s probably the most famous rock star in the world, and—unlike Prince and Stevie Wonder and the few other pop artists who can credibly play every instrument—he never got bored with writing hit singles.

His toughest challenge is that we take Paul McCartney for granted. For most of us, he’s been there our whole lives—making hits, filling stadiums, carrying the Beatle torch. He’s had very few scandals (the pot bust, the disastrous marriage to Heather Mills) and, in contrast to the other three of the Fab Four, he never seemed to resent his history and his success. If anything, McCartney’s competitive drive to stay in the pop game can be his most frustrating characteristic, though it’s obviously hard to fault him for that, especially when “FourFiveSeconds,” his curious collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna, has multiple times more streams on Spotify than any of his own songs (and, incredibly, almost 200 million more than “Here Comes the Sun,” the service’s biggest Beatle song).

And while you haven’t been paying attention, his 21st century albums have stacked up to become an impressively consistent, easily overlooked body of work. His output in the ‘80s and ‘90s was erratic, and it looked like he had lost an audience for new music; between 1989 and 2005, only one McCartney album cracked the US Top Ten. But since 2005’s intimate, reflective Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his writing has seemed re-energized, and the albums that followed—Memory Almost Full, New, and Egypt Station—have felt confident and even daring, addressing the reality of aging while still seeking pop pleasures.

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McCartney III continues this unlikely hot streak. It’s not news to hear him handling all the music himself (most of Chaos and Creation and Memory Almost Full also featured him working alone), and there’s nothing as memorable as McCartney’s classic “Maybe I’m Amazed” or McCartney II’s loony cult favorite “Temporary Secretary.” But it’s a charming, sometimes moving set of songs that reveals more complex and profound layers over time.

McCartney III

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“Deep Deep Feeling” is an extended, almost primal meditation on the joy and pain of intense emotion. The opening “Long Tailed Winter Bird” initially feels like an exercise exploring an acoustic guitar figure, but opens up into an oddly rewarding groove. That figure returns in the closing “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” a simple observation of farm life chores that lands powerfully at a time when we’re all stuck at home tending to our own gardens.

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Some of the songs are a little shaggy, maybe too long or not fully finished, but of course that’s the point. “Lavatory Lil” is almost as silly as its title, but “Slidin’” and “Find My Way” are convincing rockers, especially sixty-plus years into a rock & roll career. And just as Paul has finally (mercifully) embraced his graying mop top, he wisely lets his weathered voice show.

Inevitably, there’s an impossible challenge for new Paul McCartney music, which is that it has to compete with old Paul McCartney music. Will any of these songs find their way into his set, when (if?) he’s ever able to get back on a stage? Will you want to hear one of the McCartney III songs rather than “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Let It Be” or “Live and Let Die?” Even if you’re a fan, will you actually listen to this album beyond perhaps a cursory stream? I’m guessing not—the last few albums charted high, quickly disappeared, and haven’t even been certified gold—but fortunately, that hasn’t gotten in the way of McCartney’s want and need to keep creating. And one thing is for sure; you’re going to miss him when he’s gone.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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