If it was quarantine fever that prompted Paul McCartney to return to all-DIY studio mode for his new album, “McCartney III,” it may be the the lack of any looming global tour that really helped set the record’s diverting and loose mood. His previous release, 2018’s “Egypt Station,” created with a full band and big-name producers like Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, had its quirks but was clearly designed as the kind of commercial project that would not just reinstate the former Beatle at No. 1 on the charts (which it did) but provide fresh set-list grist that wouldn’t have stadium bathroom queues forming all at once. “McCartney III” is almost nothing but the quirks, undertaken in isolation with an initial intended audience of probably just one: a certain Sussex vegan sheep farmer who must’ve realized by April or May that he’d rather spend the pandemic woodshedding than shearing.
As probably every fan has heard or figured out by now, “McCartney III” is a sequel to 1970’s “McCartney” and 1980’s “McCartney II” in name, methodology and year-ending-in-zero only, and not so much in style. Because when it comes to that, “III” doesn’t really have one — it’s all over the place, and delightfully so, even if he occasionally lands upon a subgenre that you wish he stuck with for more than a song or two.
The opening track, “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” is five-plus minutes of aggressive jamming mostly on an acoustic guitar, not unlike what you’d expect from a particularly good Lindsey Buckingham demo, with some percussion occasionally coming in and out to remind you what an effective and underrated kit drummer McCartney has always been. While it might be nice to get a whole album’s worth of that mostly instrumental, acoustic-ambient approach, that’s the last we hear of it. Midway through, when it comes to the Side 2 opener, “Slidin’” — and it’s probably OK to use the vernacular, since McCartney is marketing “III” with what may be dozens of different limited-edition colored-vinyl variants — he dips into a calmer variation of the thick ’n’ heavy rock he perfected a lifetime ago with “Helter Skelter.” And who wouldn’t want a whole green, yellow or blue LP’s worth of that? But the lockdown muse quickly takes him somewhere else.
The point is that, as different as “McCartney III” is from “Egypt Station,” it’s also that much different from the techno-pop of “McCartney II” — sorry to say, there is nothing here that reaches the polarizing heights of “Temporary Secretary” (or all-time lows, if you’re just completely on the wrong side of things). Maybe a third or so of the new record will remind you in some way of that first ’70 solo album, which we might as well go ahead and call “McCartney I,” by virtue of fitting a mode that figuratively or literally seems pastoral. In the closing “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” over one of the collection’s few examples of un-over- dubbed finger-picking, McCartney sings about how he needs to fix a fence to keep out the foxes because “the lambs and the chickens won’t feel safe until it’s done,” and it’s hard not to think of the photo of him as sheepherder on the cover of “Ram.” The partner who shares his life now has inspired him to flights of romanticism equal to those for the one who shared the album billing back then: “The Kiss of Venus,” sung mostly in his whispery falsetto, is as wonderfully lovestruck as anything he’s ever written. To hear him sing of being one of “two passing planets in the sweet, sweet summer air” where “we came together with our secrets blown” is to be smitten by the Cute One all over again.
Make no mistake: Though the album has its share of pleasingly ramshackle numbers, there are a good number of “real” songs here, ones you can imagine fitting in on “Flaming Pie” (which had a deluxe reissue this year) or “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” But it’s some of the goofier or slightly more experimental tracks that, for a certain breed of fan anyway, make the ramshackle “III” even easier to love than the more formal “Egypt Station.” Think of them as throwaways you don’t actu- ally want to discard, like the two-minute rocker “Lavatory Lil,” which tells us that whoever came in through the bathroom window turned out to be a gold digger.
The soul of the entire album is not in that kind of brevity: “Deep Down” lasts six minutes, and admittedly overstays its welcome by about three. The similarly titled, similarly long “Deep Deep Feeling,” however, is completely charming for eight and a half, with Kurstin (whose presence indicates an “Egypt” outtake) playing jazz chords on the piano as the tripart epic has McCartney in the throes of “the deep, deep pain of feeling” and “thrill of living.”
There’s a passion in that song’s hypnotically repeated phrases that people might not always associate with the happy-go-lucky McCartney. But, at 78, putting himself to work on uncommercially motivated music for (initially) its own sake, when a probably pretty grand fireside is beckoning, establishes that life and music still are thrills for the man who once took Thrillington as a nom de plume. May he long maintain the ideal life/work balance, between this kind of musical freestyling and getting out to fix that fence.