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A gentle little album, that just happens to be of historic importance
on 24 September 2013
So this was it: the end of the Beatles. Although Ringo Starr had released his Sentimental Journey a month earlier, nothing on it actively suggested the band was finished. Meanwhile, McCartney casually told the world (via a press release bundled in with the album) the Beatles were splitting up. It's not surprising that it met with some hostility, particularly from the other Beatles. Paul had not been the first to leave the band, yet he pulled the ripcord in public. (He did this a month before the release of Let It Be, which put a lot of extra pressure on the band's unintended swansong.)
Given its turbulent back-story and place in the group's dissolution, it seems sensible to expect a grand statement from McCartney musically as well as historically. But it's not like that. McCartney is a deliberately low-key record, largely composed of instrumentals and sweet songs knocking around for years beforehand. It's self-produced, played and sung by McCartney entirely solo, and lyrically offers no grand statements on the Beatles, life, or anything. At first glance it's an album Paul could just as easily have put out years earlier, with the Beatles still going beside it. If you think of it as the album Paul decided to make at the expense of the Beatles, it may well disappoint.
If you can cut through the history and expectation, there is much to like. "Junk" is a beautiful tune, lilting and sad. Though it's tempting to read into the lyrics ("bye bye, says the sign in the shop window, why, why says the junk in the yard") as end-of-the-band melancholy, the song pre-dates the break-up. However, the mood is appropriate. It's reprised as a more haunting instrumental later on, which serves to suggest "Junk" (no pun intended) as the album's theme, if there is one.
Elsewhere, the music is entirely jolly and laidback. "The Lovely Linda" seems cloying and dopey, the sort of thing other Beatles would veto; without them, here it stays. Similar goes for "Teddy Boy", a very Paul-ish narrative ejected from Let It Be. "Man We Was Lonely" has such a pleasant bounce you wouldn't know it was hurriedly "given lyrics one day after lunch", and "That Would Be Something" seems cheerfully improvised, with Paul muttering in place of drum fills.
More important thematically, "Every Night" describes Linda McCartney's importance to Paul, and works as a gentle domestic counterpart to the album's one raucous moment (and probable highlight), "Maybe I'm Amazed". Less momentous, the various instrumentals barely register after they're finished, pleasant though they are.
Without the instrumentation of George, the biting wit of John or the production of anybody, the songs on McCartney can seem maddeningly slight. That's presumably the point: here is an album that won't try to conquer worlds or change music the way Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper's did. It's an unfortunate irony that it's still expected to do so, with Paul's sense of timing (and choice of press release) partly to blame. It seems even worse in hindsight, with All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band making more direct efforts to tackle the end-of-the-Beatles hype, leaving McCartney in an almost irrelevant place. However, that's all hype and history: this is just Paul making music, and on those terms it's a sweet, honest effort.