What is instantly exhilarating is his recklessness. The opening riff of Long Tailed Winter Bird thrashes an acoustic guitar to the brink of decency. His drums clatter and hiss like a box full of rocks and his signature bass guitar hiccups down the neck in an eccentric flourish en route to a flock of discordant recorders and, eventually, a staccato vocoder hook: “Do you, do you see me, do you, do you, do you miss me, do you…”
For an artist who cared about his critics, the question would be a provocation. This guy, of course, doesn’t give a monkey’s. He crashes into the verse of Find My Way with unapologetic banality, undercuts it with a surprising falsetto chorus about anxious days, then promises that “the love you feel inside” will sort it out. Cue weird, multi-layered guitar coda. Because he can.
Seize The Day is another song that might be read as a response to the pandemic. Then again, “Yankee toes and Eskimos can turn to frozen ice” and “Dinosaurs and Santa Claus will stay indoors tonight” sound suspiciously like the random gibberish the maestro has openly favoured for decades.
McCartney’s stoner creative philosophy has long trusted first thoughts as a way to truth. It pays off on Slidin’, a stomping electric screamer that might be about skydiving, but also serves as a real-time narrative on his process. “I know there must be other ways of feelin’ free/ But this is what I want to do, who I wanna be.” He also reckons “I can see my body through windows in my hair,” so get literal at your peril.
The album’s sole stinker comes with its own warning: “Look out for Lavatory Lil“. It’s a thudding rock throwaway so scathing of its gold-digging subject that McCartney has already been forced to deny it’s about his ex-wife, Heather Mills.
Those regrettable 140 seconds aside, III works because the tunes stick and the joy is real. When Macca hits a groove he likes, as in the epic centrepiece Deep Deep Feeling, he’ll build it eight-and-half-minutes high on a scaffold of off-kilter drums and melodic counterpoints for voices, piano and guitars, spiralling on new tangents of texture, rhythm and harmony until, presumably, he fancies a cup of tea. Then he’ll pick up and shuffle into an adjacent groove a few songs later for the slight return of Deep Down.
This reprise trick he borrowed from “higher” forms of music back in the Sgt Pepper days bookends this one as well. The closing track, Winter Bird — When Winter Comes, returns to that searing acoustic opening riff, then diverts into a jaunty pastoral fingerpicker about mending fox fences on the acre block, in turn, a loop back to the bucolic farmyard sessions of McCartney, half a century ago.
By comparison, the stakes are low for McCartney III. Back in 1970, in the immediate wake of the monumental Abbey Road, he had everything to prove. Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night and Junk shone through the daring debris of half-cooked home recordings to become worthy classics.
Likewise with the bizarre electro noodling of McCartney II in 1980. Songs as seemingly slight as Coming Up and as mawkish as Waterfalls still ring through supermarkets today. The sequenced synth lunacy of Temporary Secretary has yielded a cult favourite sampled by DJs and hip-hop acts and retrospectively hailed by Gen Z style bibles.
Today, the idea of layering up a whole album at home all by yourself is infinitely less amazing than it was when McCartney’s trailblazing experiments inspired artists as diverse as Neil Young and Hot Chip. While III is neither as lo-fi as McCartney or as nutty as II, maybe it’s enough to predict that Find My Way and The Kiss of Venus will probably be rattling supermarket shelves in another 50 years.
Michael Dwyer is the Financial Review’s foreign editor.