Books of 2021

My favourite new books of this past year:

Crow Court by Andy Charman
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue
And Away… by Bob Mortimer
The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon
Barbara Throws A Wobbler by Nadia Shireen
The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius — translated by Peter Graves

I’ve read a lot (just over 50 books), but I fell out of the habit of blogging about everything I finished. Perhaps I’ll get back to that in 2022.

The best older books I got around to in 2021 were Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

The Lyrics

The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon

Dipping into this in between the last of the mince pies, I’m delighted by its many departures from McCartney’s well-rehearsed anecdotes and well-established Beatles lore. This is in large part thanks to the poet Paul Muldoon, on whose extensive interviews with his fellow Paul (50+ hours clocked since 2015) the whole project relies.

We learn that McCartney is mildly embarrassed by Rock Show, and has been meaning to get around to doing Rocky Raccoon live. Reflecting on And I Love her, he wistfully recalls the last time he saw his old flame Jane Asher – a chance encounter many years after their mid-60s engagement, but just a stone’s throw from the ‘garret’ in her parents’ home in Wimpole Street where he famously dreamt Yesterday. She Came In Through The Bathroom Window leads him to describe his synaesthesia, which renders days of the week as distinct colours for him and has many other ways proven ‘fertile ground’ for his songwriting.

If Muldoon occasionally nudges McCartney too far toward some lofty, literary claim — “part of what lies behind [A Hard Day’s Night] is, of course, Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night” being one — that can be forgiven when the book has plenty of off-kilter choices such as Check My Machine, House of Wax and Spirits of Ancient Egypt — none of them songs that McCartney would be likely to expound in any other context.

Even more surprising is the incredible depth of the MPL archive. Of course there’s a wealth of great photography, but there are also postcards, paintings, jottings on envelopes, even schoolbooks from the days before young Paul ever set eyes on the teddy boy John Lennon. A careful selection from a million-plus items makes The Lyrics a lavish visual treat.

And in the end, the love you take

is equal to the love you make.

Occasionally a particular image will leap out with special significance, seeming to capture a creative breakthrough or a major turning point in a wildly eventful life. In a 1969 notebook, underneath the couplet from The End that self-consciously called time on The Beatles’ recording career, McCartney has doodled four hearts pierced by a single arrow, in pink ink. On the facing page of the same notebook, he’s composed Every Night, a gem that turned up on his first solo album, in which he’s clearly sinking into his post-Fab depression, but is mercifully buoyed by his love for Linda.

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.