I come to praise Paul McCartney, not to bury him.
I’ve let him have it with both barrels on more than a few occasions, but the truth is I think he’s the greatest melodist in rock history, one of the top two or three bassists and a great singer with exceptional stylistic range. I’ve hammered him when he’s gotten lazy with his lyrics or let his sentimentality get the best of him, and he deserves every blow of the hammer for crap like “Silly Love Songs,” “Wild Life” and “Listen to What the Man Says.” I listened to one of his latest releases, ironically entitled New, and it definitely calls up images of the ballplayer who hangs on too long for one more season in the sun, though his skills have deteriorated to the point that it becomes painful to watch him play. The truth is McCartney should have retired long ago.
Instead of kicking a guy when he’s down, I will now rise in defense of his maiden solo voyage, a release that was thoroughly slaughtered by the critics of the time. My take is that they were operating under two biases: they believed the album wasn’t anywhere near as good as the overrated Abbey Road; and they lacked the emotional intelligence necessary for proper interpretation. I’m not going to tell you that McCartney is a great album, because it isn’t. It hardly qualifies as a good album, and some of it is embarrassingly bad. However, if you look at it as a chapter in a much longer book (the story of his career), it’s certainly one of the more fascinating chapters because it gives us a change in the narrative and a deeper understanding of the main character.
McCartney can only be understood in the context of its creation. The Beatles had gone on their fateful trip to India in search of enlightenment, and returned a fractured entity. Their final phase, beginning with The White Album, was marked by massive group dysfunction and a loss of a common purpose. Recording sessions were characterized by endless arguments, band members showing up when they felt like it or not at all, retake after retake and the dreary presence of Yoko Ono, sometimes in a bed John had moved into the recording studio. For all intents and purposes, it was obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that these people needed to go their separate ways.
Obvious to everyone but Paul McCartney. He could not imagine an identity apart from The Beatles or the guys he’d known for years. Unfortunately, no one had trained him on group facilitation skills, so his efforts to motivate them to get off their asses and try to outdo what they had done before were seen as the actions of a pushy, power-seeking perfectionist trying to fill the void Brian Epstein had left. I believe his intentions were good, but he simply lacked the skills to pull the group together . . . although I seriously doubt that anyone could have turned the Lennon of that period into a team player, not even the legendary Vince Lombardi. Lennon had already launched several separate ventures, and even George had done the soundtrack for the film Wonderwall, so when John announced he wanted a “divorce” from The Beatles, no one should have been surprised.
McCartney was shattered. Robert Rodriguez described him as suffering from depression during this period in his book Fab Four FAQ 2.0. The tone of much of McCartney is melancholy, subdued, uncertain, withdrawn, fragmented. It’s certainly not the work of a perfectionist. In some spots, it sounds positively indifferent.
In part, that what makes this album unique and gives it a certain appeal. McCartney’s vulnerability comes through loud and clear; it’s a very human album by someone who had been elevated to superhuman status. Linda encouraged him to seek solace through his music and he did, sometimes with faltering steps moving in uncertain directions. The album is full of unfinished thoughts captured in home recordings; even the songs that were completed in the studio are simple, straightforward productions. McCartney shoves Paul off the Beatle pedestal and brings him to eye level with the rest of us, where he becomes much less iconic and more accessible and real.
Appropriately, the album opens with a fragment, “The Lovely Linda.” Linda was his lifeline at the time, so the dedication is justified; towards the end of the album she receives a more fitting tribute. “That Would Be Something” is kind of a roots song, nothing fancy, but definitely in the groove. I love it when he kicks it into slightly higher gear by speeding up his percussion, but the overall effect remains one of restraint, like he’s not emotionally ready to let it all out just yet. The fragmentation continues with “Valentine Day,” reminiscent of a blown take in a garage band’s first recording session.
“Every Night” is the first of three rejected Beatles tracks on the album. This one’s from the Let It Be/Get Back sessions, a recording project that could have used all the help it could get. Lennon and Harrison were probably too pissed off at Paul to give this one much of a chance, for it’s certainly better than most of the garbage that emerged from that disaster. The melody is McCartney-perfect and flows like a warm summer breeze on the veranda. The lyrics reinforce the image of a person dealing with depression (“Every day I don’t want to get up, get out of my bed”), where the next day seems like the day before and all you want to do is stay home. Best of all, McCartney sings it straight, taking a more subdued approach that likely sprung from his mood. TIP: The elongated E7 where you have to put your little finger on the Ab on the high E string is a great stretching exercise for amateur guitarists with tiny hands like mine.
One critic referred to the “sheer banality” of the album, and that is fair criticism for “Hot As Sun/Glasses,” a tune that sounds like your trip through Disneyland has been interrupted by a quick ride on the Magical Mystery Tour. Paul then plays to his strengths with the melancholy melody in “Junk.” A White Album reject (oh, how I wish it had replaced “Honey Pie”), this wistful dig at our possession obsession is definitely worth the reprise that comes a few tracks later, “Singalong Junk.” On the other hand, “Man We Was Lonely” goes exactly nowhere and the performance is less than half-hearted. The same goes for “Oo You,” which never really reaches the oomph level necessary to move hips. I’m not sure where he intended “Momma Miss America” to go, and as such, it goes nowhere.
“Teddy Boy” was written while Paul was soaking up the humidity in search of wisdom from the Maharishi and the song wound up in the wastebasket during the Let It Be/Get Back sessions. The Anthology 3 version (a blend of takes), hints at the fun The Beatles could have had with this song had they been able to stomach each other during that sad period. This is another tune that needed the pre-Yoko Lennon to lend a hand with the lyrics, as it’s pretty much an unfinished tale. The placement of “Singalong Junk” after “Teddy Boy” takes on greater poignancy as it triggers thoughts of what might have been had The Beatles not run out of gas.
And then, almost out of nowhere in this recording of a man feeling his way through the darkness, we get “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The wow factor of this song is off the fucking charts. There’s absolutely no holding back here, as Paul sings and plays every instrument with economical perfection. His lead guitar work is his strongest since “Taxman,” but the beauty of this song is in the vocal and the lyrics. This is probably Paul’s most direct, honest and clear expression of deeply felt-emotion, and the power he brings to the performance comes across with stunning force. The admission of vulnerability to a woman is always difficult for a man, but Paul lets it all out with surprising frankness:
Baby, I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time,
And maybe I’m afraid of the way I love you.
Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man
Who’s in the middle of something
That he doesn’t really understand.
With the Beatle myth crashing all around him, Paul McCartney reconnected with the more basic human needs in this song: love, comfort and reassurance. This song is so very, very moving, and one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” should have ended the album, but perhaps Paul felt he needed to distract the audience from that public display of emotion. How classically stiff-upper-lip of him! “Kreen-Akrore” is sort of Paul’s “Revolution No. 9,” and one of the worst ideas he ever had. Somehow, though, it belongs on this record, a less-than-stellar effort of tentative steps in many different directions. Although McCartney is hardly a masterpiece, it’s still a fascinating look at the artist and the performer in transition, capturing a rare moment of human vulnerability in the life of a rock ‘n’ roll god.