Reexamining Paulie: A look at some of Paul McCartney’s often underappreciated solo albums
by Gray Whisnant
I don’t listen to the Beatles very much. Yes, I may prominently display Revolver on my wall, and I might possibly own a White Album lunch box, but when it comes to actually listening to the Fab Four these days, I’ve spun “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” enough times to know the words without dropping the needle.
So in order to get my Beatles fix, I faithfully listen to every new Paul McCartney album in hopes of catching just a bit of the original spark in a catalog that is approaching fifty years of age. When I share this with other people, I can usually count on the same few responses every time. One usually goes, “You like Paul’s solo stuff? It’s so cutesy and syrupy compared to John Lennon’s bold and powerful albums.” Then there’s another kind of Beatles fan that can rave about the brilliance of the second side of Abbey Road but usually responds, “Is the stuff they did after breaking up even worth listening to? I know a few songs, but most of them are inferior parts of what was once a great whole.”
These are common opinions, but unfortunately they’re huge misconceptions. Paul has often referred to himself as “the avant-garde Beatle,” a label that would surprise people who only know him by his radio hits but one that his discography actually backs up. And for the Beatles fans who think that the magic ended with the release of Let It Be, I can assure you there was life after 1970 for the troubadours of Swinging London.
With the release of Paul McCartney’s new album, appropriately titled New, allow me to present several of his solo albums for your consideration that illustrate how wrong it is that his solo brilliance is unfavorably compared with Lennon’s or just ignored altogether.
Released in 1971, Ram was savaged in the press at the time as complete trash.For Rolling Stone, Jon Landau wrote that the album represented “the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock so far” while calling it “monumentally irrelevant.” In the years to come, however, it has risen to recognition as one of the greatest of all the post-Beatles solo albums and praised for inspiring a generation of indie pop artists.
Before Ram, the idea that you could sit in your bedroom and write a beautifully sloppy pop masterpiece was largely nonexistent and wholly out of step with the that era’s trend of big, shiny blockbuster rock albums. Working with his wife Linda, Paul smoked a very high quantity of marijuana and did just that. On “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” Paul juxtaposes absurdist lyrics, orchestral suites, and gloriously off-key harmonies to craft a willfully bizarre classic. Throughout the rest of the album, he channels his isolation caused by being blamed for the demise of the Beatles into brilliant genre exercises, whether in the anguished Beach Boys pocket symphony of “The Back Seat of My Car,” the ukulele-driven “Ram On” song sketches, or Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver-foreshadowing “Heart of the Country.”
It’s easy to understand how critics at the time were mad at Paul for refusing to make sleek masterworks in the style of Abbey Road, but the fact that the proudly ragged Ram’s flashes of genius have been vindicated by artists ranging from Pavement to Animal Collective make it essential listening.
While most casual listeners might be familiar with Band on the Run, it is Venus and Mars that is Paul McCartney’s true ‘70s arena masterpiece. On this release, we find Paul reveling in dabbling in doo-wop (“Call Me Back Again”), vintage show tunes (“You Gave Me the Answer”), and hooky stadium rock (“Letting Go”). Beating back largely sexist calls to have his wife stay out of his music and professional life, McCartney proudly makes their relationship the driving force behind the album with the sweeping titular “Venus and Mars” opening the album and reprising on the beginning of the second half of the record.
More than anything else, Venus and Mars is a record that wisely refuses to take itself too seriously and with songs like the comic book inspired “Magneto and Titanium Man,” and finds Paul producing an album that sounds like instant nostalgia in the making.
McCartney and McCartney II [1970 & 1980]
On his two self-titled albums separated by ten years, Paul McCartney subverts the then-dominant idea that credible music had to be made through collaboration by taking an eight-track recorder and making some of the most personal music of his career all by himself.
On McCartney, Paul rebels against the notion that he had to follow up his Beatles career with a “grand statement,”instead choosing to make a purposefully unpolished record of folky songs that, as on “Junk,” can be described as a “brokenhearted jubilee.” “Maybe I’m Amazed” is perhaps the single greatest song of his solo career while other tracks like “Every Night” and “That Would Be Something” evoke McCartney’s desire to escape the pressures of stardom and escape to a rural landscape where he can find freedom. Altogether, it’s a fascinating listen that captures Paul at a peculiar time in his life but is still able to make
McCartney II finds McCartney at a similar crossroads. Feeling trapped and depleted from the enormous success of Wings, he retreated to his farm in Scotland and recorded songs which captured his excitement at new wave bands like Talking Heads and channel it through a classically McCartney filter. On “Coming Up,” he takes a jerky riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Remain In Light and weaves several extremely catchy melodies and countermelodies on top of it. On the synth driven but mournful “Waterfalls” and electronic loop-fueled “Temporary Secretary,” McCartney once again proves his capability of reinventing his sound for new musical movements all while combining it through his own offbeat pop genius.
While Paul might have effortlessly written the easy listening “My Love” and “The Long and Winding Road,” he refused to limit himself to mainstream pop. Working with the Killing Joke bassist and trance producer Youth, McCartney adopted the moniker of “The Fireman” to craft some of the strangest and most fascinating music that any major artist has ever made. On Electric Arguments, he largely leaves chart pop behind and instead in songs like “Travelling Light” embraces psychedelic electronica. Recorded during bitter divorce proceedings with Heather Mills, McCartney makes some of the angriest and most seething music of his career. On the proto-metal “Nothing Just Two Much Out of Sight” or the fantastically stoned acoustic track “Two Magpies,” McCartney waxes bitterly about deception, heartbreak, and loss.
That’s not to say he forgoes the pop sensibility that made him such a great artist in the first place. “Sing the Changes,” the centerpiece of the album, is the sound of a man who has no reason not to rest on his laurels and revel in his past achievements, choosing to embrace the future in both music and life. Electric Arguments proves just how great Paul’s music could be when adopting a new name and letting his sense of abandon run free.