Paul McCartney’s best asset has always been his effortless mastery of melody; his worst weakness is his how often his songwriting seems a little too effortless. There’s plenty of evidence of both on 1970’s McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II, two famously low-key handmade solo records featuring one of rock’s most accomplished composers casually flitting about by himself in the studio, playing all the instruments and forsaking the polished professionalism befitting a star of his stature. Instead, these albums—which have been newly re-released in various formats, including deluxe editions rounded out by outtakes and videos—cater in the simple amusements of hastily performed doodles that only occasionally coalesce into fully formed songs.
The sense that McCartney might’ve had two classics on par with his Beatles best had he worked just a little harder on McCartney and McCartney II sometimes makes listening to the reissues feel like retracing lost opportunities. But for the most part, what comes through is McCartney’s remarkable ability to create catchy hooks seemingly off the top of his head, as well as his playful sense of experimentation and lack of rock-star pretensions.
Released just as The Beatles were breaking up, McCartney offered an intimate, off-the-cuff look at one of the world’s most famous people. As home movies packaged with the expanded version poignantly indicate, McCartney came out of a period in McCartney’s life when family life represented a blissfully calm respite from the rigors of Beatlemania. The pleasure of domestication is the dominant theme of McCartney, which pays tribute to McCartney’s wife (“The Lovely Linda,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the sublime “Junk”) and everyday normalcy (the light-as-air “Every Night”). Because McCartney already sounded like a collection of demos upon its original release—a star essentially releasing his own bootleg of works in progress—the disc of outtakes fits in surprisingly well, particularly the Harry Nilsson-like dark-humored ballad “Suicide.”
Recorded after McCartney spent several years fronting yet another wildly popular band, Wings, McCartney II is in many ways better than its eponymous predecessor, and certainly stranger. While McCartney seemed to be almost purposely constructed to not be great, McCartney II found Macca making a full-on new-wave record (by way of Lindsey Buckingham) inspired by Talking Heads, Devo, and, it appears, copious amounts of weed. There’s definitely a certain cloudiness to loopy synth-driven instrumentals like “Front Parlour” and “Frozen Jap,” as well as the infamously batty “Temporary Secretary,” perhaps the oddest (and funniest) track of his solo career. While the most striking songs on McCartney II are the most straightforward—the Fear Of Music-style funk of “Coming Up” and the dreamily romantic ballad “Waterfalls”—the moments of fearless casualness make both McCartney records appealing as snapshots of a legend in transition, no matter the unrealized potential.