Paul McCartney: McCartney III (Capitol)
Verdict: The Fab One
Paul McCartney’s two previous all-solo albums arrived at pivotal moments. The first, 50 years ago, was a rough-and-ready affair made as the Beatles were falling bitterly to pieces. The second, in 1980, came as his next band, Wings, were crumbling.
Now we have McCartney III, made ‘in rockdown’ as Macca was quarantining with family members in Sussex. This was to have been the year he returned in triumph to Glastonbury: instead he found himself writing songs alone on guitar, piano, an old Fab Four mellotron and the double bass used on Elvis Presley’s early hits.
Recording in isolation wasn’t his choice — he didn’t intend to release new music in 2020 — but he’s made the most of it and this spontaneous ten-track album, out today, reiterates both his often-overlooked experimental streak and his knack of coming up with effortlessly great melodies. ‘Each day I’d start recording with the instrument I wrote the song on, and then layer it all up,’ he says. ‘It was about making music for yourself. I had no idea this would end up as an album.’
Paul McCartney has made the most of lockdown with a ten-track album that fares even better than previous successful solo records
Fans will be glad it did: McCartney III finds its maker lowering his emotional guard and refusing to overthink things. Its predecessors both had their moments. McCartney I gave us the superb Maybe I’m Amazed; II served up electro-pop hit Coming Up. This volume fares even better: at least three of these tracks sound like future standards.
Find My Way is a Wings-like rocker worthy of Band On The Run, powered by slide guitar, multi-tracked vocals and lyrics that could have been inspired by 2020: ‘You never used to be afraid of days like these, but now you’re overwhelmed by your anxieties,’ sings Paul. There are two other golden moments. Seize The Day contains a killer chorus, and Winter Bird — When Winter Comes finds McCartney in Mull Of Kintyre mode as he reflects on rural life, singing of fixing a fence to ensure that his lambs and chickens are safe from prowling foxes. It strikes a bucolic note that would have fitted neatly onto his 1971 album, Ram.
That track dates back to 1992, when it was recorded by Paul and the late Beatles producer George Martin but never released. As well as finishing the original, he has crafted a new passage, the largely instrumental Long Tailed Winter Bird, which opens the new album with steel-stringed guitar and electronic effects.
Elsewhere, there is the baroque piano piece Women And Wives, the whimsical blues of The Kiss Of Venus, and heavy rock number Slidin’. On the intriguing Pretty Boys — all Dear Prudence guitars — there are references to Beatlemania in lyrics celebrating a bunch of good-looking lads who are ‘gonna set your world on fire’.
The album takes a different turn on Deep Deep Feeling, a centrepiece that starts as a soulful late-night ballad and unfurls, over eight shape-shifting minutes, into a jazzy fever-dream.
If McCartney had been making a more mainstream LP, he might have thought twice about its inclusion. But isolation has encouraged him to take risks: ‘You know that deep, deep feeling when you love someone so much you feel your heart’s going to burst,’ he sings. In 1967, all he needed was love. Little, it seems, has changed.
Taylor Swift: Evermore (EMI)
Verdict: Winter warmer
Taylor Swift is also enjoying a prolific lockdown. Evermore, her second surprise album of 2020, is a continuation of the indie-folk of July’s Folklore. Taken from the same sessions, it shuns blockbuster pop tunes in favour of acoustic guitars, piano and subtle electronics.
Evermore is Taylor Swift’s second surprise lockdown album following Folkore, which was released in July
It was made with multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner, of cult U.S. rock band The National, and its 15 tracks include collaborations with Bon Iver, Marcus Mumford, Haim and her regular producer Jack Antonoff. It’s not a Christmas LP but the mood is certainly wintry. There are frosty dog days, halls being decked — and a song called ‘Tis The Damn Season.
It could have done with greater sharpness in places. These sepia-tinged fireside tales are built around time signatures you wouldn’t normally expect to hear on a Taylor Swift record. Dessner is a dab hand at creating dark, atmospheric moods, but the casual fan’s attention might wander over the course of a languid hour.
But Taylor taps cleverly into folk’s narrative traditions, and there are recognisable hooks amid the soft arrangements. Gold Rush is euphoric. Willow rekindles some of the peevishness that undermined 2017’s Reputation, but at least there is humour this time: ‘They count me out time and time again… but I come back stronger than a Nineties trend.’
The prevailing mood is one of disillusioned rom-ance. A loveless marriage is laid bare in Tolerate It. Champagne Problems sees a pair of college sweethearts going their separate ways. No Body, No Crime, which was made with Haim, examines a love triangle that turns into a murder mystery.
The most touching moment is Marjorie, a tribute to Swift’s late grandmother.
It’s hard to see these songs being belted out in a stadium, but it would be foolish to rule out another album to complete a folk-rock trilogy. The looser artistic spirit she is embraced in isolation is worth retaining.
Chris Cornell: No One Sings Like You Anymore (UME)
Verdict: Spirited swansong
Chris Cornell recorded the album before his death in 2017
Soundgarden and Audioslave singer Chris Cornell made No One Sings Like You Anymore a year before his death in 2017, but the covers album — titled after a line in Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun — has been held back by his family until now.
‘All of us could use his voice to help heal and lift us this year,’ says his widow Vicky, and she’s right: it’s a powerful farewell.
Cornell was a pioneer of the Seattle grunge scene in the 1990s. But he was also a superb interpretative vocalist with a wide vocal range, and he tackles the ten tunes here with bluesy assurance.
He transforms Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U into an acoustic lament and puts his own stamp on deep cuts by John Lennon, Nilsson and ELO.
BEST ALBUMS OF 2020
Despite the lack of live music, 2020 was a brilliant year for new albums. Our critic picks ten that would make great last-minute gifts:
DUA LIPA: Future Nostalgia (Warner)
Dance-pop cheer for living room discos
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Letter To You (Columbia)
Rambunctious reunion with the E Street Band
HAIM: Women In Music Pt. III (Polydor)
Sun-dappled Californian sounds
TAME IMPALA: The Slow Rush (Fiction)
Synth-pop with a personal edge
TEDDY THOMPSON: Heartbreaker Please (Thirty Tigers)
Juke-box pop from British folk royalty
KANDACE SPRINGS: The Women Who Raised Me (Blue Note)
Piano-led homage to female jazz greats
KYLIE: Disco (BMG)
Retro-dance with a resilient spirit
MILEY CYRUS: Plastic Hearts (RCA)
Pop with gale-force power
FLEET FOXES: Shore (Anti-)
Jangling guitars and lush harmonies
Honourable mentions to: the Pet Shop Boys, The Strokes, John Legend, Phoebe Bridgers, Lianne La Havas, Charli XCX, Bob Dylan, Soccer Mommy, Jessie Ware and Lady Gaga