Paul McCartney’s “McCartney II” Reviewed
There is a McCartney behind the McCartney and it seems to exist as much in his mind as in his recording career. The cutting edge, experimental performer following the outer reaches of musical weirdness while Lennon was playing house in Surrey. The still single in the 60s and easily excited Paulie was going to avant garde art shows curated by Peter Asher, connecting the band with Joe Orton, imagining Sgt. Peppers. None of it could compare with Lennon’s dive off the deep end but it was there and real and McCartney II, Paul’s second solo album, and 13th album altogether is a musical manifestation of his arty conceptions. Listening to the May 1980 release (I mention this just to be certain you keep Lennon’s December murder in the future) is a pop manifestation of his artistic and experimental urges. This is abundantly clear on the first song on the second side, “Front Parlour”. I’ve heard variations on this song, the “Pong” come to life back and forward bleepy electronica that every tech musician has in their arsenal. Heard it a million times. But this was the first time in my life that signature bloop synth sound became a song.
Paul had released Back To The Egg, before going to his Scotland hope and recording 20 synthesizer songs, went back to rehearsal with Wings, before getting arrested in Japan for marijuana possession (one of the stupider mistakes in his career, he hadn’t toured Japan since 1966 with the Beatles because he couldn’t get a visa… due to marijuana convictions). He spent eleven days in prison, got back home, cancelled the tour, and decided to finally release McCartney II. Another DIY album, one man band. The Human League had formed in 1977, but they didn’t release Dare until 1981 and that leaves McCartney a true pioneer of the form.
McCartney II announced synth pop to the UK and everybody came in its wake (including Hot Chip!), but its own successes are a little iffier. Side One is perfect sequencing. The funky and masterful “Coming Up” is considered enough of a song for John Lennon to return to the studio, “Coming Up” is Chic on helium and synths, “Temporary Secretary” can be heard as an influence on Kraftwerk’s earliest work, “On The Way” is passable blues but “Waterfall” is the blueprint for TLC’s breakthrough and “Nobody Knows” is one of Macca’s trademarks -a 50s rockabilly shake up and a lost gem. Side Two is more instrumental bound and while Macca is too tuneful to perform ambient, all the songs stick out, “Front Parlor” comes awful close. The only song worth your while on Side Two is the dimming of the lightsish “Summer Day’s Song”, otherwise stuff like “Bogey Music” is exercises in synth without even much of a lyric. The best truly synth moment is haha “Frozen Jap”, where the drum machine is a pouding presence and the lick repeated and repeated till it becomes an earworm. Lyrically, there is nothing going on here really, everything is at service to a musical concept of the first order, years ahead of the pack but not musically clever enough to matter.
While at the time it was seen as a misstep, today it feels like an experimental pop album that loses its nerve.