A limited release, according to Capitol Records, that will not exceed a U.S. run of 500,000 copies, this seventeen-song concert nonetheless could turn out to be a significant album for Paul McCartney — much more than another item for the collectors. A majority of these performances, taped in London last January for MTV Unplugged, offer strong, straightforward acoustic pop. Accompanied by bassist Hamish Stuart, guitarist Robbie McIntosh, pianist and accordionist Paul Wickens and percussionists Blair Cunningham and Linda McCartney, Paul McCartney reinvents treasures like “Every Night,” “Blackbird” and “Here There and Everywhere” and lights up such Fifties inspirations as Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Although the performances display the decisiveness of those on McCartney’s Tug of War, for example, they of course spring from far different circumstances. “This is so informal, we’ll start again!” McCartney says after first forgetting the opening lines of “We Can Work It Out.”
In sharp contrast to McCartney’s arena get-togethers last year, Unplugged‘s important point has little to do with nostalgia: The emphasis is on McCartney’s songs, not the Beatlesque rock styles that have amounted to a major alternative-rock game plan for at least a decade. On Unplugged, McCartney catches, in confident and effective voice, some of the acoustic nonchalance of the Traveling Wilburys; at other times he comes across as the English João Gilberto — a country’s epic pop singer and songwriter transfiguring local styles while the rest of the world listens in. If McCartney’s next studio album figures out a way to retain the clarity, purpose, character and assertiveness of this concert, no one will be talking about runs of 500,000 copies.