“Different” was one word applied to McCartney III upon its release in December 2020 (a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure). But other descriptors were, quite rightly, “fresh,” “adventurous,” “surprising,” and “chameleonic.” Never “dull.” The album was, accordingly, a UK #1 and US #2 success, elevated by its poppy first single, “Find My Way,” and its much-touted availability on a hierarchy of exclusive colored vinyl: yellow, blue, white, black, and numbered red, or, if you were ludicrously quick off the mark, yellow with black dots.
With or without the brightly hued grooves, it was impossible to resist the sheer versatility on display on McCartney III, with its plethora of highlights. Album-opener “Long Tailed Winter Bird” impressed as an inspired, near-instrumental slice of acoustic blues that built unpredictably from a stunning guitar riff. “Slidin'” hit home as a supremely dirty rocker, “Deep Down” a groovy, soulful joy, and “Women and Wives” a poignant ballad touching upon the questions of mortality and personal legacy. And they were all, of course, written and performed almost entirely by Paul McCartney of Liverpool, in the fine DIY tradition of 1970’s McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II, but with added Covid restrictions.
So now comes, well, what is it? A covers album? A remix album? A tribute album? Let’s just go with the catch-all term “album of reworkings,” particularly as some of its tracks feature the great man himself, and some don’t. It’s made up, according to the promo material, of “an A-List assortment of friends, fans and brand new acquaintances, each covering and/or reimagining their favorite ‘McCartney III’ moments in their own signature styles.” It also emanates puns galore in the aftermath of “recorded in Rockdown,” which serve to enhance its experimental, melting-pot vibe: “III-imagined,” “What’s Your Take On It?” etc. You see, the songs aren’t set in stone, man! They aren’t limited to one viewpoint, or subject to boundaries and rules. Roll the dice for different results!
But hold on: with McCartney curating the project personally, you might expect some degree of restraint from the artists involved, as with writers of authorized biographies who fear the disapproval of their subjects. Not a bit of it! The chosen ones are “friends and acquaintances” from the hip forefront of contemporary alternative music (no David Gilmour, then, and definitely no Jeff Lynne), and they’re all taking risks and punching their weight, with largely exhilarating results that do justice to a legendary songwriter on terrific form. Beck, Damon Albarn, Phoebe Bridgers, Ed O’Brien (EOB), and St. Vincent all brim with confidence on this album, most being well versed in the kind of lo-fi production techniques so eminently showcased on the intimate McCartney trilogy. Beck, indeed, brought us the cheaply made slacker classic One Foot In The Grave in 1994, while Albarn released a home-spun record with a ropey pun all of his own in 2003: Democrazy.
It’s Beck who kicks things off in fine, electronic style with a remix of “Find My Way,” it being in keeping with McCartney’s newfound faith in randomness that the running order of tracks should diverge totally from the original. The Californian keeps the semi-rapped verses, the falsetto chorus, and the highly topical line about being “overwhelmed by your anxieties,” but not a lot else. He dispenses with the guitars and magnifies the groove by way of a thumping, hypnotic bass line and some monster beats. The interweaving vocoder adds to the party mood, and it all ends up sounding like a Talking Heads track, or even something off McCartney II. Which is a good thing!
Dominic Fike subsequently transforms acoustic ballad “The Kiss of Venus” into a meandering and thoroughly engaging R&B number. The rising US singer/rapper is unconcerned with replicating McCartney’s high-pitched and slightly wobbly vocal expression of emotional vulnerability on his original, but rather substituting it with his own laconic style and wordplay. He actually adds his own lyrics to the song, with allusions to politically divisive stories in the newspapers giving it a dark edge. He performs a major overhaul, in other words, but strangely he ends up with segments that are highly evocative of Pepper-era Beatles. How did that happen?
Elsewhere, Phoebe Bridgers applies her own compelling brand of drama and woozy melancholy to the melodic “Seize the Day” (a bona fide cover), and really draws out the sense of loss at the heart of the song. Radiohead guitarist EOB, meanwhile, teams up with Bloc Party producer Paul Epworth and messes up “Slidin’” in magnificent style while retaining the McCartney vocal and instrumentation. It opens like Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times,” it’s faster than the original, it’s distorted, it’s got more guitars, it’s got a wall of synth noise, and yes, it recalls “Helter Skelter.” “This is what I wanna do, who I wanna be,” sings Paul, and who can blame him?
There are plenty more surprising and mesmerizing moments on the album besides, not least Texan trio Khruangbin rendering “Pretty Boys” unrecognizable as a slice of psychedelic funk, and Blood Orange sprinkling “Deep Down” with jazzy piano chords and backwards guitar effects in true Are You Experienced? style. There’s also St. Vincent remixing “Women and Wives” so as to give it a brooding, Portishead kind of feel, complete with gospel harmonies and one of her visceral guitar solos. There’s Albarn, too, with a radical reinterpretation of “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” so dubby and trippy that it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gorillaz album. Those backwards vocal effects, the resounding bass, and then the unleashing of the song’s signature guitar riff at the end…excellent.
The only wrong turn here is Josh Homme’s cover of “Lavatory Lil,” as the Queens of the Stone Age rocker clearly doesn’t know where to go with it. He doubtless drew the short straw when he acquired the song (the weakest on McCartney III, but by no means as bad as you’d expect), and here it is drained of all charm and just plain irritating with its jazzy inflections.
There’s hardly any slack on McCartney III Imagined, though, which is a remarkable achievement. The album is, absolutely, a celebration of musical eclecticism, which shows how an intriguing concept can really work out in practice. Sure, there’ll be the cynics who’ll accuse McCartney of shamelessly courting millennials and hipsters and young musos by hiring all these indie superstars to put their mark on his songs. But with results this good, who cares? Prepare thyself, therefore, for a fresh onslaught of colored vinyl releases, which begins July 23.
McCartney III Imagined Tracklisting (all Paul McCartney reimaginings)
Find My Way (feat. Beck)
The Kiss of Venus (Dominic Fike)
Pretty Boys (feat. Khruangbin)
Women And Wives (St. Vincent Remix)
Deep Down (Blood Orange Remix)
Seize The Day (Phoebe Bridgers)
Slidin’ (EOB Remix)
Long Tailed Winter Bird (Damon Albarn Remix)
Lavatory Lil (Josh Homme)
When Winter Comes (Anderson .Paak Remix)
Deep Deep Feeling (3D RDN Remix)
Long Tailed Winter Bird (Idris Elba Remix)