It’s amazing to think that the Beatles recorded all of their output in about eight years, while Paul McCartney has been recording as a solo artist for 45 years. Despite the massive volume of output during that time, his solo work has made far less of cultural impact as what he did with the Beatles. Even including John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s solo work to the equation, and you still don’t come close. The Beatles were more than the sum of their parts. The magic was a unique combination of four talented individuals who were never going to be able to compare without the rest of those parts.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of amazing music to discover, though. Paul McCartney’s solo work has been occasionally hit-and-miss, but it’s mostly worthwhile. The same is true for his former bandmates, perhaps to a lesser degree. John Lennon released two classics right out of the gate after the Beatles’ collapse with Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971), but after that his output was much spottier. Harrison, armed with an impressive backlog of material since he was generally only permitted two songs per Beatles album, started his solo career with perhaps the greatest of all the Beatles’ post-breakup work: All Things Must Pass. That was the apex, though. He released some great songs and solid albums after that, but nothing close to the same level. Ringo Starr’s solo output has been mostly notable for a few good singles here and there (and a handful of classics), but nothing dramatically impactful.
When one examines McCartney’s output, though, it’s impossible not to objectively conclude that his body of work is by the most significant of the four. Sheer volume alone is part of the reason, but the truth is that McCartney has never lost his ability to write and perform a great pop song. Yeah, he doesn’t have Lennon’s acerbic presence to temper his more garish tendencies, just as Lennon’s solo work was absent McCartney’s softening touch. Still, with 45 years, dozens of mostly terrific albums and a boatload of great singles -- yeah, it’s not the Beatles, but it’s an extraordinary body of work nonetheless.
McCartney has just unveiled his most ambitious career retrospective yet, Pure McCartney, which presents some of his greatest material as a genuinely unique listening experience. There are three editions -- an abbreviated two-disc CD of 39 tracks, a four-disc vinyl set of 46 tracks, and a four-disc CD (and deluxe digital edition) of 67 tracks. For the purposes of this review, we’ll focus on the deluxe edition.
Unlike many compilations that focus mainly on the hits, Pure McCartney sequences deep album cuts alongside #1 singles. Also refreshing about Pure McCartney is that the collection is not presented chronologically. McCartney has personally selected the songs and sequenced them in an order that provides a logical flow, sometimes jumping decades between songs. It’s an opportunity for fans to explore and discover his catalog in a new light, allowing some of the often overlooked more recent material to fit nicely alongside well-worn classics.
Pure McCartney is lavishly produced and expertly remastered. McCartney’s songs have never sounded better. There is a warmth and richness to the collection that is welcoming. The set opens appropriately enough with his earliest solo classic, the achingly devotional piano ballad “Maybe I’m Amazed”. Next on the journey is the comparatively jaunty “Heart of the Country”, a gem from his 1971 album Ram. He follows with “Jet”, the ferocious rocker that helped make Band on the Run his most successful post-Beatles release, and then “Warm and Beautiful”, a love ballad to his late wife Linda from the Wings at the Speed of Sound album that was never released as a single but obviously holds significance to McCartney. It’s structured almost like a concert set-list -- the listener really has no idea what to expect next.
McCartney presents his catalog with pride, emphasizing songs that some detractors point to as lightweight. He offers no apologies for the much-derided smash “Silly Love Songs”, slating it in a prominent position as the lead song on side two of the vinyl edition. He’s right to be unashamed of it, as the song’s sunny optimism, buoyant melody and florid bass-line deliver just the kind of idealistic belief in love’s ability to conquer all that the Beatles espoused. McCartney has never let go of that thread, all throughout his career. There are darker moments, but for the most part his catalog is upbeat, replete with odes to love and songs of hope. He follows “Silly Love Songs” with the first of his ‘recent’ output, if you can consider 19 years ago recent. “The Songs We Were Singing”, from 1997’s Flaming Pie, is a nostalgic look back at his storied past. He follows that with the idiosyncratic 1971 chart-topper “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” before lurching forward to his most recent studio album, 2013’s New, and another reflection on his fab beginnings with the ballad “Early Days”.
Hearing songs spanning 40 year side by side certainly emphasizes the fact that McCartney’s voice has indeed changed over the years, but it remains supple and strong. In fact it’s amazing how well the old songs sound alongside the newer material. He sandwiches the fairly recent “English Tea”, from 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, between two of his greatest ‘70s classics: “Live and Let Die” and “Mull of Kintyre”. It all works wonderfully, and just emphasizes how many truly great songs McCartney has recorded. The biggest of the classics are all here: “Band on the Run”, “Goodnight Tonight”, “Coming Up”, “Listen to What the Man Said”, “Another Day”, “Let Me Roll It”, “My Love”, “Hi Hi Hi”, and “Let ‘em In”, to name a few.
The presence of hand-picked deep cuts like “Winedark Open Sea” from Off the Ground, “Dear Boy” from Ram, “Big Red Barn” from Red Rose Speedway and “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun” from Press to Play add to the set’s intrigue. It’s fascinating to hear which lesser-known songs McCartney feels belong alongside his acknowledged standards. Of course, there are some occasional head-scratchers, like the inclusion of the Wild Life throwaway “Bip Bop” instead of one of that album’s two real classics: “Tomorrow” and “Dear Friend”.
As with any compilation, one can quibble with the song selection. In this case, though, those quibbles turn into the only significant criticism of the set. There are glaring omissions that are simply inexcusable. Most egregiously, there are no tracks at all from McCartney’s critically acclaimed 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt, which features songs co-written with Elvis Costello. That album’s three major singles, “My Brave Face”, “This One” and “Figure of Eight” all certainly should be included on a set that McCartney bills as “the only comprehensive career collection released of Paul McCartney's solo works (outside of the Beatles) from his 45-year solo career.” Their absence is difficult to fathom. Also missing is anything at all from 2001’s Driving Rain, which includes singles like “From a Lover to a Friend” and “Lonely Road”. The most notable major hit omitted is the smash “Take It Away” from 1982’s Tug of War.
It’s strange that he wouldn’t include at least one song for all of his studio albums of original material, given that he was so close to doing so. After all, there is no shortage of space -- the deluxe edition has 67 tracks. Did we really need eight selections from Flaming Pie and four from Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard when one of his key albums is totally unrepresented? Band on the Run and Ram are certainly classic albums, but he includes 10 songs between them. He also bizarrely includes the 1984 novelty single “We All Stand Together”. There was certainly room to make Pure McCartney the “comprehensive career collection” that he claims it to be.
Less serious omissions, but still noteworthy, are substantial hits like “C Moon”, “Helen Wheels”, “So Bad”, “Once Upon a Long Ago”, and “Hope of Deliverance”, the lead single from 1993’s Off the Ground. His outstanding soundtrack single “Vanilla Sky” would have been a strong inclusion. He also missed the opportunity to bring some of his best hidden gems into wider view, as there are no B-sides present. On his 2001 compilation Wingspan he rightly included “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”, the excellent 1979 B-side to “Goodnight Tonight”, but it’s nowhere to be found here. Other key B-sides like “Oh Woman, Oh Why”, “Little Woman Love”, “Sally G” and the acoustic marvel “Rainclouds” all would have been excellent additions.
It’s not perfect, but Pure McCartney is as close as we’re going to get to a definitive collection of the man’s post-Beatles work without simply buying all of the albums. There’s no denying the exceptional attention to detail, the beautiful production, the fascinating sequencing and the overall strength of the material. These songs hold up remarkably well, whether they’re 40 years old or more recent work. Despite its flaws, Pure McCartney is an excellent introduction to the legend’s solo work for the newly initiated and a fantastic opportunity for old fans to rediscover many of the key tracks in his catalog in a new and different light. It’s a collection rich with terrific songwriting and performances, a monumental testament to Paul McCartney’s legacy that extends far beyond the Beatles.