Every decade should kick off with a Paul McCartney one-man-band album — and this one needs it more than most. McCartney III carries on his tradition of homemade solo records, in the mode of his acoustic 1970 debut and his 1980 synth-pop oddity McCartney II. Like its two predecessors, it’s Macca at his most playful. He’s not sweating about being a legend, a genius, or a Beatle — just a family man kicking back in quarantine, writing a few songs to keep his juices flowing. Like the rest of us, he’s been in lockdown, hanging out on his daughter’s farm, grandchildren on his knee, strumming his acoustic guitar in the English summer sun. It’s the warmest and friendliest of quarantine albums — it’s basically Ram meets Folklore.
Macca wrote, played and produced McCartney III himself, with plenty of his folksy finger-picking. Back in the Seventies, one of his Wings bandmates called him “just a farmer who plays guitar,” and that’s the vibe he’s going for here. Paul hasn’t sounded so rustic since his earliest solo days, from “Mary’s Got a Little Lamb” to “Junior’s Farm” to “Mull of Kintyre.” When he sings about sheep and chickens, you know he means actual sheep and chickens, not metaphors.
McCartney III works best when he leans all the way into the solo acoustic concept. He starts off strong with the marvelous “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” which has a couple minutes of frenzied folk guitar before he even begins to sing. There’s also witty moments like the London Town-style yacht-rock ballad “Women and Wives” or the Abbey Road-style goof “Lavatory Lil.”
McCartney’s been on a songwriting roll in recent years. It’s just been two years since the excellent Egypt Station, one of his finest solo records ever, with the Alex Chilton-style guitar meditation “Dominoes,” definitely an all-time top ten Paul solo classic. Egypt Station was also a Number One hit, and never think for a moment Macca doesn’t take that to heart. It was his first chart-topper since Tug of War in 1982, setting a new record for the longest stretch between Number One albums.
His current hot streak began with Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his 2005 Nigel Godrich collabo, which slipped between the cracks at the time but now stands as a major turning point in his story. He’s never wanted to settle for being a nostalgia artist — that’s always set him apart from his generational peers. He takes pride in moving forward. Until the pandemic slowed his roll touring-wise, he was slaying live crowds every night with his best band since the Fab Four. And ever since Chaos and Creation, he’s been writing brilliant songs to match.
McCartney III isn’t ambitious like Egypt Station — like his first two self-titled solo statements, it’s a spontaneous palate-cleanser after a labored studio project. McCartney came right after Abbey Road, as he shrugged off the Beatles with acoustic ditties like “Every Night” and “The Lovely Linda,” recorded at home on his spiffy new tape machine. McCartney II came right after the final Wings album, the underrated Back to the Egg; it had a genuinely nutty Number One hit with “Coming Up” and the lost gem “Temporary Secretary,” which sat unnoticed for decades until the world suddenly decided it was brilliant.
McCartney III has that same stripped-down touch — the only duds come when he turns up the synths and tries to rock out. It peaks high with “The Kiss of Venus,” a pastoral romance that floats like an updated “Mother Nature’s Son,” as he hits poignant high notes in his superbly weathered voice. He ends with “When Winter Comes,” a hard-bitten tale of farm life. At first, it sounds like a farmer’s almanac of chores, like “Must dig a drain by the carrot patch.” But it’s also a portrait of late-life domestic bliss, with two elderly lovers warming their toes by the fire, forced by winter to stay indoors and delight in each other. The song has a surprising emotional power—like a flip side to “When I’m 64,” with Paul looking back from the edge of 78.
When Paul was making his 1970s farm-core statements like Ram and Red Rose Speedway, the albums got attacked. But he’s lived long enough to see a new generation rightly prize these albums as cult classics — much to his amusement. As he told Rolling Stone in 2016, “One of my nephews, Jay, said, “Ram’s my all-time favorite album.’ I thought it was dead and gone, stinking over there in the dung pit. So I listened to it. ‘Wow, I get what I was doing.’ ” The vindication has to be sweet. That’s part of the charm of McCartney III. He’s not raging against the winter — it’s just a chance for the master to kick back and smile away.