On ‘McCartney III,’ Paul McCartney Delivers Some Of His Most Understated, Impactful Music in Decades

If you haven’t listened to Paul McCartney in a while, now’s a great time to start again. “McCartney III” is indeed a sequel to his 1980 album “McCartney II” — but it’s also a bookend of sorts to his solo career, and an exercise in which he performs all of the instruments himself. But this time he’s not responding to the breakup of the biggest band in music history (as he was in 1970), or even reacting to disintegration of Wings, his Beatles follow-up. Instead, he’s recording in isolation during a worldwide pandemic, crafting songs to keep himself busy and test his creative mettle at the ripe old age of 78. Thankfully, his chops haven’t diminished a bit, but if a few of the tracks on his latest effort veer into a repetition that only avoids sounding derivative because he happens to actually be a Beatle himself, “McCartney III” nevertheless manages to be a strong and understated new work from a popular music standard-bearer who’s been around long enough to set the standard.

McCartney reportedly began making the album after revisiting “When Winter Comes,” an unreleased song from the early ‘90s that no less than George Martin co-produced. He reworks it for the opener “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” and then rebuilds it for the album’s quiet finale. If McCartney truly plays all of the instruments on the album, you’d never know it was a solo affair, as he fills the steady build of “Long Tailed” with electric guitar, violin, snappy drums, shaggy multi-part harmonies and plenty of extra flourishes. What’s striking is how his brief excursions into hip-hop, such as on the Kanye West/Rihanna track “FourFiveSeconds” and Theophilus London’s “All Day,” seem to have helped chart the destination he arrives at here; in no hurry to wrap up, much less settle into some kind of verse-chorus-verse structure, he tinkers with a groove until something instinctual tells him to start singing a pointed, catchy refrain: “Do you / do do do do feel me / doot de do do miss me.” It doesn’t read like much on the page, but he makes it sound like magic.

If his falsetto doesn’t sound quite as youthful or vibrant as it used to, he still turns perky pop ditties like “Find My Way” into showstoppers, switching effortlessly between vocal identities as he sings “You never used to be / afraid of days like these / and now you’re overwhelmed / by your anxieties,” offering assistance to a helpless pal. McCartney outgrew the need to perfect his performances decades ago, and there’s no one left for him to impress; so his unpolished delivery on “Pretty Boys” only adds charm and dimension to its old-man songwriting perspective about the fleeting appeal of a youth he’s looking back on. He waxes further reflective on “Women and Wives” with lyrics that are precise and full of homespun wisdom that his experience elevates above triteness: “every path that we take / makes it harder to travel… when tomorrow comes around / you’ll be looking at the future/ keep your feet upon the ground/ and get ready to run.”

For better or worse, a track like “Lavatory Liv” vividly reminds listeners that this is the guy who previously co-wrote songs like “Polythene Pam” — not just because of the alliteration but because they’re basically lyrical filler for some sort of musical workout, in this case a rockabilly stomper he chugs through with more energy than insight. Conversely, “Deep Deep Feeling” seems to fold the influence of folks like Peter Gabriel and David Byrne into decades of songwriting craft that first exhausted, then studiously avoided traditional expressions of love; over a haunting, empty beat, he assembles a chorus of one, carefully arranged to surround the listener in its expansive musical space while pinpointing the sensation “when your heart’s gonna burst” over the course of eight unhurried, exploratory minutes. It’s the centerpiece of the album, and deserves to be, showcasing how unbothered he is at this point in his career by more conventional song structures, and yet capable of generating hook after hook after earworm hook.

He veers into hard rock for “Slidin’,” as if to preemptively answer the question “is there anything he can’t do,” offering the pairing of elegant sludge and a ghostly melody that Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme would sacrifice Dave Grohl to get to include in his songbook. It’s these departures from the formula with which we associate the former Beatle that you would think sounded like he’s showing off, but it’s unimposing acoustic instant-classics like “The Kiss of Venus” that impress the most — just McCartney and a guitar, baring his own soul, peering into ours, and connecting them through a melodic DNA that’s been baked into the building blocks of 60 years of popular music, and by him. 

In the build up to “When Winter Comes,” a payoff that nobody knew they were waiting for, he includes “Seize The Day,” a song that straddles both his Beatles and Wings eras but leans more heavily into the latter, shifting gears and tempos as his lyrics vacillate between goofy schoolyard rhymes (“Yankee toes and eskimos can turn to frozen ice”) and more humble advice to enjoy life’s small pleasures before they disappear. And then there’s “Deep Down,” whose four-four beat and midi horns conjure Glass Candy’s underappreciated “Rolling Down The Hills” as reinterpreted into a going-out anthem for listeners of McCartney’s generation. Meanwhile, the closer “Winter Bird – When Winter Comes” sounds like a lost Appalachian standard that McCartney gives a fresh coat of paint — and just in time for a season when people will need something this cozy and familiar to warm their souls. 

The best thing about McCartney’s latest is that you can pick it up after years away from his work without losing a beat; after all, the former Beatle is literally the bedrock on which our collective musical memory was built. But “McCartney III” is far from a victory lap, or a coda to his career, much less a particular cycle of creativity. Rather, it’s a continuation of that work, and a reminder why those foundations he created remain so sturdy. Ten years passed between “I” and “II,” and forty more before “III.” Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long or another world-changing event to get to “IV,” but at the very least, Paul McCartney has proven he can still deliver a worthy follow-up if it does.

McCartney III” releases Dec. 18 on Apple Music.