McCartney III

As if the Get Back sneak peek wasn’t enough Beatley joy for one day, my copy of McCartney III landed on the doormat. It’s an album I’d expected long before we had heard an official peep about it, as it’s hard to imagine what else Paul McCartney would do when plunged into lockdown other than get into the studio, and let the music flow. He’s responded to previous, more personal crises – the collapses of The Beatles and of Wings – with truly solo albums on which he played every instrument, experimented with technology, indulged all sorts of weird whims, and largely baffled music critics.

Therefore it wasn’t a great surprise to learn a third such album was on the way – yes, fuelled by hummus-and-Marmite bagels (his favoured recording session snack, as discussed on The Adam Buxton Podcast), McCartney had made the most of ‘rockdown’ and got busy in his personal studio at Hog Hill Mill.

I avoided much of the pre-release hype, so that I’d not heard a note of McCartney III ’til I could pop my headphones and give it the undivided attention that I feel a new record from the great man deserves.

It’s perhaps a little early for me to pick favourite tracks or say where it falls in the complex hierarchy of solo Macca. At a push, I’ll choose The Kiss of Venus as my highlight – it’s a delicate cosmic love song that could have been equally at home on the White Album or Venus and Mars, but works so well at the top of 78-year-old Paul’s vocal range, croaks and all.

The Kiss of Venus

My main initial impression is that the album is as ‘pure Paul’ as I’d hoped, a true sequel to McCartney and McCartney II, on which he once again pushes himself. For instance, he throws everything at the moody 8-minute centrepiece Deep Deep Feeling, chasing down every last harmonic idea and rhythmic quirk, ever more curious about the crazy sounds he can conjure all on his own. That’s all driven by the same restless musical instinct that resulted in the bonkers Temporary Secretary (and the even more bonkers Check My Machine) back in 1980. The freewheeling lead guitar on Lavatory Lil is executed with the same boyish glee as the noodling on Oo You and Momma Miss America fifty years ago. The bluesy Women and Wives is a whole new twist on Paul’s Fats Domino impression – both unlike anything he has attempted before, and unmistakably McCartney. A treasured upright bass (the very same Kay Maestro M-1 played by Bill Black on early Elvis recordings!) is put to good use here. In the closing seconds of the song, I can picture Paul beaming as he gives the string a final emphatic thump and slides lazily up the neck.

Women and Wives

The album concludes with When Winter Comes, a gorgeous, wistful acoustic piece that lists tasks to be completed around the farm.

Must fix the fence by the acre plot
Two young foxes have been nosing around
The lambs and the chickens won’t feel safe
Until it’s done

When Winter Comes
When Winter Comes

With its percussive acoustic playing and bucolic feel, it’s a sister song to Calico Skies. Lyrically it harks even further back, to the early 70s when Paul and Linda were raising a young family on their farm near the Mull of Kintyre. It’s a mark of an incredible songwriter that he can sit on a song this perfectly lovely for nearly 30 years. With its message of taking care for and pleasure in nature as the world changes around you, perhaps there’s no better time for Paul to finally release it.


Interesting McCartney III links

Twitter Listening Party
Tim Burgess’ Twitter Listening Party for McCartney III is available as a replay – Paul chips in with notes about the inspiration and gear behind each track and it’s a fun way to listen along.

The making of McCartney III
This is really for gear nerds like me, but if you want to know a little more about Paul’s Studer J37 tape machine or the signal path for his bass parts, this is gold – an extended interview with the engineer and technical manager at his studio, with plenty of new insights into his process.

The Adam Buxton Podcast
A typically great interview by Dr Buckles, ranging from Paul’s unexpected penchant for reality TV like American Pickers, to his opinions on Bob Dylan’s live act.

64 reasons to celebrate Paul McCartney
This essay by Ian Leslie is better than most books on McCartney, drawing on all kinds of sources to try and understand his ‘ordinary genius’. There’s bound to be something in here that’s news to you, or that sends you hurrying back to a particular album or song.

Get Back sneak peek

Yesterday morning, Peter Jackson shared a sneak peek montage ahead of next year’s Get Back film – 5 minutes of previously unseen footage from The Beatles’ early 1969 sessions, with every second radiating the joy that only the Fab Four can muster. The perfect thing to brighten a gloomy midwinter.

The park

A lot of people have been grateful for whatever green space they have in their neighbourhood this year. Watching my son toddle around in the open air, I’m one of them. Since the first lockdown, he has gone from taking his very first steps across his bedroom to exploring the little crescent-shaped Victorian park around the corner. He does so with a kind of boundless glee that only needs to be reined in when he’s about to trip into a patch of nettles.

A selection of the activities that have kept us busy:

One of my very best squirrel photos
  • bushwhacking new paths between the holly trees
  • collecting the most orange of the autumn leaves
  • chuckling at the giddy dogs (or ‘degs’ as he calls them) chasing each other in ever-increasing circles, or hopelessly pursuing squirrels up cypress trees
  • picnicking under the giant redwood
  • squirrel-spotting
  • splashing in muddy puddles

Some of the most precious half-hours of 2020!

Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.

Carol singers

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin

I’m wasting no time in summoning some much-needed festive spirit as 2020 draws to a close. Over the weekend we decorated our tree (with the most precious/dangerous baubles positioned well above toddler-on-tiptoes height for the first time) and frosty fingers have been gathering winter greenery for the wreath.

It feels like time for a fireside Negroni and a spin of Nick Lowe’s Quality Street.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a splendid 2021!

Serpentine

Those who are well-versed in Pullman’s multiverse might have expected Serpentine to be something like his previous spin-offs – a neat, self-contained adventure like Lyra and the Birds (contained in Lyra’s Oxford), or a satisfying slice of backstory like Once Upon A Time The North. Fans might also have hoped for more of the splendid ephemera that came folded into those books – maps, correspondence, newspaper extracts, even a board game. (Peril of the Pole).

Serpentine comes with no board game, and is a plotless, sullen snapshot of Lyra and Pan in the aftermath of The Amber Spyglass, now revisiting the Arctic we first saw in Northern Lights. Its 70 pages are dominated by uneasy dialogue about how humans relate to their dæmons – the animal companions who embody their souls and can never leave their sides (although there are exceptions). With those preoccupations and a wounded, melancholy tone, it treads much of the same ground as last year’s The Secret Commonwealth. That’s for good reason – it represents something of a trial run. It was written for a charity auction in 2004, years before The Book Of Dust was planned, so is a first bash at an older, more reflective Lyra and Pan, forever scarred by what they’ve seen and done.

Serpentine might have fit more comfortably as a bonus in the recent essay collection Dæmon Voices, as it doesn’t quite justify its own slim volume in the same way as Pullman’s earlier tangents. It’s worthwhile as an insight into how and why he slowly made his way back to Lyra, rather than as an essential piece of her story. That concept of dæmons, the irresistible hook in those very first pages of Northern Lights, has become the beating heart of Pullman’s fiction. In the afterword to Serpentine, he writes ‘I hope that, above all, these books are about being human’. Dæmons are his bespoke tools for poking at that particular problem. They have allowed him to explore depression, love, regret, innocence, experience, and so much more. They are Pullman’s very own beautiful shorthand, and here he is developing it.

Boots No. 2

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings aren’t known for being especially prolific. I’ve always imagined that their rural American music, with its deceptively simple song structures and transcendental, timeless feel, takes time to perfect. And the precious few albums that have emerged in the past decade or so have indeed been perfect.

That’s why the bounty of Welch/Rawlings releases in 2020 has been such a welcome surprise. With their lives upturned more than most – first by a tornado that hit East Nashville back in March and didn’t spare their recording space, then by the pandemic – the couple initially responded with a covers album, All The Good Times Are Gone, recorded on their couch. But the tornado scared them into releasing some of the old material they’d come so close to losing, and over the autumn they treated us to three volumes of Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs.

Whereas Boots No. 1 was essentially the ‘making of’ Welch’s 1996 debut Revival, with lots of fascinating demo and alternate versions, most of the 48 songs that make up Boots No. 2 haven’t been heard at all before. They date back to a long weekend’s songwriting flurry around 2002, after which they were largely forgotten. A couple (One Little Song and Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor) turned up in different forms on Soul Journey. The Dylanesque Picasso has featured regularly in Welch’s live shows over the years. Solomon Burke cut Valley of Tears. And Changing Ground will be remembered by anyone who watched the 2012-2018 country music soap opera Nashville (I did, until the bitter end).

But the majority are new to us, and unlike so many other artists’ vault-clearing exercises, the quality is impeccable. There’s not a single track here that feels throwaway, that you wouldn’t want to return to – even the joke songs have hidden depths. And nothing’s been overthought, because clearly there wasn’t time. The duo’s instinct for precisely when to leave a song alone is too good, anyway.

The songs that stick with me are the concise character studies, a rich seam for Welch as far back as Orphan Girl. It’s astonishing how, in a couple of short verses, she can conjure a believable person with hopes and fears that feel real. She does more on a single lyric sheet than some novels manage in 900 pages. There’s the eccentric Strange Isabella who perplexes everyone with her unseasonal clothing and untied shoes. We meet three lost souls walking the harsh Streets of St. Paul. The protagonist of Rambling Blade is a murderer reflecting on their sinful life and their few virtues as they prepare for the gallows. With haunting lines like ‘Wear my scars/white as lace’, Johnny Cash would have covered it in a heartbeat, and Nick Cave would kill to have written it. Or perhaps I’ve got that the wrong way round.

There’s also a gospel strand – the Bible gets the equivalent of rave Goodreads review in Mighty Good Book (‘Have you ever read it for yourself?’) and You Only Have Your Soul warns of the devil’s temptations, or perhaps the trappings of fame (‘Be careful what you sign on the line’). There’s more supreme country-soul in the likes of Roll On, yet another ready-made standard. And they let their hair down on stuff like the near-gibberish rockabilly come-on Wella Hella and the party-starting Back Turn And Swing.

Wella Hella

You’ll have your own favourites as you delve into this stuff, but Boots No. 2 has been hands-down my musical highlight of 2020. So thanks, Gill and Dave, for dusting off your lost songs and sharing them – they’re the gift that keeps giving.

Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.


For a lot more insight into this amazing duo, I recommend Hanif Abdurraqib’s recent New York Times piece: How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism.