Tug of War is the masterpiece everyone has always known Paul McCartney could make. In style and format, the album isn’t all that different from his earlier work, but the songs are far more substantial than the eccentric doodlings of recent albums. Instead of another homemade effort, McCartney has teamed up with producer George Martin to create a record with a sumptuous aural scope that recalls Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.
Together, McCartney and Martin have compiled a veritable encyclopedia of contemporary studio pop in the deluxe, high-tech tradition of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Every cut offers a stylistic montage of one sort or another, creating an actual tug of war between different pop notions — between British pop parochialism and Afro-American progressiveness, escapist fantasy and sage observation, world-weariness and utopian sentiments. But McCartney doesn’t just present these oppositions, he unites them. Harmonious, peaceful coexistence is both the ethic and the aesthetic of the album.
Conceptually, Tug of War is organized around two Paul McCartney-Stevie Wonder duets. Though it wasn’t obvious until now, both musicians share a love of childlike melodies and playful asides, and McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory” is the ultimate display of this kinship. The tune’s phonetic simplicity and its image of black and white piano keys as a metaphor for race relations combine to make a global children’s song as ingenuous as “Happy Birthday,” Wonder’s tribute to Martin Luther King. McCartney’s little tune is the ivory half of a matched pair. The ebony counterpart, “What’s That You’re Doing,” is a red-hot pop-funk feast that’s served up on Stevie Wonder’s roiling and squiggling synthesizer.
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These companion pieces are simply the most obvious of many such juxtapositions. In the sweepingly majestic title song, McCartney observes that man’s nobler aspirations and warlike impulses originate from the same human urge for more, and he underscores that statement with marching drums and lofty symphonic orchestration. The song could easily be McCartney’s “Imagine,” for it makes a similar leap of hope: “In years to come they may discover/What the air we breathe and the life we lead/Are all about/But it won’t be soon enough … for me.” And like “Imagine,” the song also acknowledges the worst side of humanity: “But with one thing and another/We were trying to outdo each other/In a tug of war.”
This solemnity gives way to pure exultation in “Take It Away,” a multistyle rock & roll tour de force celebrating the joys of music making. Ethereal vocal harmonies inspired by Fleetwood Mac and 10cc, rollicking New Orleans-style horns and quotes from “She Loves You” all comfortably coincide on a cut that sounds like a raunchier, calypso-inflected update of “Silly Love Songs.” “Ballroom Dancing,” an audacious novelty in the “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” vein, allows McCartney to resolve the tensions between his nostalgic yearnings and his rock & roll passion by embracing both at once. This galloping fox trot, with its jolly music-hall melody, is tricked out with funky horns, and the lyrics, which intersperse bits of nonsense with fleeting images of England in the Fifties, manage to sound cute and hip at the same time. “Get It,” a duet with Carl Perkins, is another clever hybrid — an acoustic rockabilly strut.
Yet the most powerful stylistic juxtaposition — classical string quartet meets acoustic folk — occurs on McCartney’s eulogy to John Lennon, “Here Today.” The lyrics — in which McCartney remembers meeting, loving and eventually breaking down in tears with Lennon, while all the time never really understanding him — evoke the depth and complexity of their friendship with an astounding tenderness. And George Martin’s string arrangement is, if anything, even more graceful than the one he did for “Eleanor Rigby.”
“Here Today” brings up the album’s most personal and painful aspect. Lennon and McCartney, after all, were icons of goodness in the Sixties, but even the Beatles’ utopia wasn’t immune to a tug of war that destroyed their collaboration and even, for a time, their friendship. There’s a sense in which the whole album is a meditation on two deaths—the Beatles’ and John Lennon’s.
In this emotionally wide-open atmosphere, even McCartney’s more whimsical tunes assume bittersweet overtones. His fairy-tale love songs to Linda McCartney suggest that there is no war between them—perhaps because, for McCartney, the difference between marriage and friendship is the difference between cozy retreat and mortal risk taking. In the elaborate, gorgeously arranged “Dress Me Up as a Robber” and the staid, hymnlike “Wanderlust,” McCartney compares sexual independence to foolish military adventuring. It’s in these seemingly lighter moments that George Martin’s studio touches illuminate McCartney’s wistful hominess with exquisite musical details: a brass ensemble in “Wanderlust,” pan pipes in the affably shuffling “Somebody Who Cares” and Beatlesque inner voices in the madcap “The Pound Is Sinking.”
Instrumentally, McCartney doesn’t try to be a one-man band. Though he plays as many as six instruments on some cuts, Denny Laine takes over most of the electric-guitar chores, and Linda McCartney and Eric Stewart assist Paul with the backup singing. McCartney’s vocals run the usual gamut—from the adrenalin hollering of “Ballroom Dancing” to the intimate, elegiac crooning of “Here Today,” perhaps his finest ballad performance since “Yesterday.”
Of the many albums McCartney has churned out in his twelve-year solo career, only Band on the Run comes close to touching Tug of War in the richness of its style and the consistency of its songs. By striking a balance among Wings’ streamlined pop-rock, the musicbox miniaturism of his solo projects and the Beatles’ baroque expansiveness, Paul McCartney has left the rest of his solo career behind in the dust.