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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Paul McCartney: McCartney

PAUL McCARTNEY: McCARTNEY (1970)

1) The Lovely Linda; 2) That Would Be Something; 3) Valentine Day; 4) Every Night; 5) Hot As Sun/Glasses; 6) Junk; 7) Man We Was Lonely; 8) Oo You; 9) Momma Miss America; 10) Teddy Boy; 11) Singalong Junk; 12) Maybe I'm Amazed; 13) Kreen-Akrore.

General verdict: A one-of-a-kind stroll through one genius' melodic junkyard.

While John's and George's solo debuts, all released towards the end of 1970, were immediately acknowledged as contemporary classics and continue to be revered almost as highly as any given Beatles album, McCartney's self-titled debut could never, ever aspire to that honor. There is a historical reason behind that — public opinion of Paul was fairly low in early 1970, since circum­stances had forced him to be the first to announce his leaving The Beatles, leading people to blame him for breaking up the band when, paradoxically, he suffered worst of all from the breakup. This, coupled with the constant ridicule of being the «sappy» member of the band, led to a natural, if totally wrong-headed, bias, the consequences of which are still felt to this day.

But it is also true that of all the records to appear out of the Beatles' implosion, McCartney is the most raw and chaotic one — essentially made by Paul on his own, in an atmosphere of secrecy, with lots of undercooked ideas and unfinished production: in other words, something that Paul McCartney, a pop perfectionist if there ever was one, would hardly be expected to do. It has never been made perfectly clear whether Paul truly intended the final results to be so patchy or if he had simply rushed the recording in order to be the first Beatle to make a solo album (techni­cally, the honor still falls to Ringo, but I guess nobody ever had a problem with Ringo if he decided to be the first Beatle to do anything). It is evident, though, that there is no other album as patchy as McCartney in his entire catalog, which should make its exploration fairly intriguing even if you do not like it much.

According to Paul's own memories, he was tremendously depressed as of late '69, close to a nervous breakdown, and in a way, McCartney is as close to a «mad Paul» record as we are ever going to get — although by the time he took his demos to Morgan Studios, in February '70, he had recovered enough to be able to work on them professionally, and without much help from anybody but Linda. Spontaneity, a concept not all that much explored during his tenure with The Beatles, ruled supreme here — thus, ʽThe Lovely Lindaʼ was originally intended to be just a short sound check, yet ended up opening the album. Some of the tunes dated back to Abbey Road sessions or even earlier (ʽJunkʼ and ʽTeddy Boyʼ were both from 1968); some were instrumentals quickly scrambled together to fill up space; only about a couple of songs were specifically written with the album in mind. A recipe for disaster to any lesser artist — in fact, probably a recipe for disaster to Paul himself, had he still not been in the absolute prime of his songwriting powers.

As it is, the amazing thing about McCartney is that I can still remember how every track goes, despite not having listened to it in years, and despite some of them being so fluffy and fillerish that it just boggles my mind how, at his peak, this guy could literally pull seductive musical ideas out of his songwriting ass by the dozen. Take ʽLovely Lindaʼ — it is basically just one vocal flourish, repeated several times over a simple acoustic backing, but what a flourish! Not only have you never heard it before, but its small, sly «dip» in the beginning and rush to a near-falsetto ending is lovable in a specifically McCartney way — sappy sentimentality counterbalanced with cheerful humor. Could he have woven it into an actual song? Perhaps not. Only the composer knows for sure. Sometimes one tasty morsel might do just as much good as a whole meal.

One thing I do dislike about the album is its sequencing: essentially, the songs seem to have been put on record in more or less the same order as they were put down on tape. In a perfect world, the filler-type instrumentals should have been clustered together around the center of the record, while its conclusion would consist of an ultra-punch (ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ), immediately followed by a cold shower (ʽJunkʼ). ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ, as pretty much everyone knows, is one of Paul's greatest power ballads — coming hot off the heels of ʽLet It Beʼ, it is the loudest, most anthemic love declaration he'd written up to that point (all the more ironic being the fact that he had to record it all by himself in the studio — in my opinion, the perfect version of the song to listen to is the live version from Wings Over America, with Jimmy McCulloch, the young guitar god, really giving Paul's original parts their due). Its lyrics, like most of Paul's lyrics, aren't particularly great, but the important thing about them is just the word amazed, because his musical figures here, and the way the song soars up during the chorus, are all about capturing that feeling of amazement at being so uplifted by his loved one... actually, for the first time in McCartney history, if I recall it right.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, we have ʽJunkʼ — a song so deeply depressed, so utterly gloomy, that it is hard to understand how on earth he'd managed to come up with it in India in 1968, of all times and places. It is easier to understand how it finally landed on McCart­ney — by early 1970, it must have been a perfect reflection of how he felt about the passing of his band; "broken hearted jubilee", "memories for you and me"... Not since ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and ʽFor No Oneʼ had we experienced Paul in such a mood, and somehow ʽJunkʼ feels even more personal and intimate, partly due to its stripped-down production, partly due to its minor-major alternations and weird, slow waltzing tempo — the last solitary dance after the party is over and there's nothing but empty bottles (and other "sentimental jamboree") littering the floor. Inclusion of two versions, a vocal one and a karaoke one, was unnecessary though — I'd rather have just merged both, with an extended instrumental coda at the end. To have the song end the album as a quiet afterthought, past the Grand Uplifting Finale, would have been a masterstroke...

...but perhaps McCartney himself was not prepared to end proceedings with such a downer. (Not yet, at least — less than two years later, he'd finally do it with ʽDear Friendʼ). Because on the whole, McCartney is quite sunny — sunny, homely, and cozy. ʽMan We Was Lonelyʼ, one of the few other completed songs here, also explores the theme of loneliness, but as something that is better left to the past. Its chorus, sung by Paul and Linda in a somewhat corny-country manner, may be off-putting to some, but this is one case where the verse (bridge?) is actually the main point of attraction — Paul's "now let me lie with my love for the time, I am home" bit is the first in a series of his humble declarations of love for country solitude (to be continued in ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ and ʽCountry Dreamerʼ), and arguably the single most poignant one; I particularly adore the contrast between the quiet "I am home" and the final triumphant "HOME!" that resolves the melody. Simple, deadly efficient, and deeply moving.

Even the instrumentals, none of them serving any purpose bigger than filling space, are fun in one way or another. The Polynesian music-inspired ʽHot As Sunʼ has one of Paul's happiest and funniest acoustic riffs ever. ʽMomma Miss Americaʼ starts life like a mute Gothic cousin of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ before evolving into a blues jam with Paul turning into Jimmy Page for a couple minutes (well, not very successfully). ʽKreen-Akroreʼ makes little sense before you learn that the composition was inspired by Amazonian Indian hunting practices that Paul and Linda watched in a TV documentary — at the very least, you have to admit that this little piece of avantgarde experimentation is more fun to listen to than anything John and Yoko ever did together in their «Unfinished Music» period. And who ever takes two minutes of raw, aggressive swamp rock and calls it ʽValentine Dayʼ? The cuddly Beatle, that's who.

One song I have never cared for here is ʽTeddy Boyʼ — probably because it seems like this is something that should have been worked on longer in order to become one of Paul's «message songs», but has not. Some embryos retain their attraction even without being hatched, but ʽTeddy Boyʼ does not manage to figure out where it is going until the song is over. There is no humor in it, so it can't hope to become the next ʽRocky Raccoonʼ, nor is there any particular love for its characters — Paul simply narrates the bland story about a boy and his mother without making us care for them. The chorus is still catchy, but it is easy to see how the tune was rejected for inclu­sion on Let It Be — it is just as «homebrewn» as ʽTwo Of Usʼ, but without the sentimental charm or subtle melancholia contained in the latter. I even like it less than ʽOo Youʼ, a rather inane jab at writing a heavy, «macho» blues-rocker — until you start thinking of it as pure parody (I sometimes imagine Brian Johnson of AC/DC singing "look like a woman, dress like a lady", and Angus Young playing that riff, and it just makes me giggly all over).

Anyway, enough with the particularities. McCartney is the work of a melodic genius at the top of his powers — but a genius racked by a crisis of faith and temporarily unfocused. I am glad this album exists: we would see a far more tight and polished McCartney very soon anyway, so there is nothing wrong about us catching a glimpse of the man in his undies for once, particularly if the glimpse is consensual. «Objectively», of course, it could not be rated above Ram or Band On The Run — but I'd rather take the snippets and crumbs of a great man at his peak than the fully baked pies and tarts of mediocrities. And the self-produced, self-sufficient nature of the record also helps, at least symbolically: it makes the record into a bold-but-humble statement of total inde­pendence — in fact, Paul needed to prove it to himself more than any other Beatle that he could stand alone in these tough times, and no dismissive reviews could probably dissolve that sense of satisfaction he must have felt when the record finally hit the stores. A modest beginning, for sure, but totally essential.

2 comments:

  1. As always, a thoughtful and as observant a review as ever. But you forgot to mention "Every Night"! What a simple, but outstandingly effective wordless chorus that song has - and I love the "believe me, mama" he throws in there for seemingly no reason. Really great album, I agree - definitely one of the most personal ones we'd ever come to hear from The Cuddly One.

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  2. I've been really looking forward to reading your new reviews on Paul's solo career (George and John too but especially Paul) and you're off to a cracking start. Though, yeah, not mentioning Every Night is a bit strange as it is one of the centre pieces of the album. One thing I would say, though, is that however much McCartney is quite a unique album in Paul's discography, it is in many ways symbolic of how he would do things for at least the rest of the seventies. His other 70s albums would be more polished and, Wild Life aside, more complete but they all share the same scattershot approach of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. This is a weakness of most of these records, both for their weak lyrics and inconsistency, but, more importantly, it's also a huge strength as it gives them the sense of quirkiness, musical innovation and genuine strangeness that makes most of his seventies career so underrated. His later stuff, good as it often was, was usually more considered (though the lyrics were often even worse) so a bit less special than his run of albums from McCartney to Back to the Egg.

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