The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 3-The ’90s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

I Can See The World Tonight: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

1990-1999: Off the Ground & into the Pie

MATTHEW: Considering how productive he was in the ‘70s (9 original studio albums) and ‘80s (5 of them), it is striking that Macca made only two albums of new material in the ‘90s. Yet the reasons for this being the least productive of his five solo decades are obvious: a series of huge world tours; and Linda’s long battle with cancer. Which excuses the weakness of Off the Ground and makes the strength of Flaming Pie all the more notable.

Off The Ground (1993)

MATTHEW: Off the Ground (1993), 2/10: This was Paul’s only pop/rock studio album between 1989’s Flowers and 1997’s Flaming Pie, but he was as busy as ever: he released the first of what would be several album collaborations as The Fireman; the first of half a dozen classical albums; and around the time when Off the Ground was being written and released, he put out no less than three live albums (Tripping the Live Fantastic in ‘90, Unplugged in ‘91, and Paul is Live in ‘93). All that activity, the live albums and massive world tours they captured or reflected, made OtG somewhat irrelevant to his public profile and career. It was certainly irrelevant to me; I was still listening to most of what Paul had created during the first 18 years of my life (1964-82), but I had given up on everything since then. I wasn’t alone; OtG did poorly (except in France, Germany, and Japan—a knock-on effect of his touring, perhaps). In retrospect, it is not an irredeemably terrible album; it has its moments. But, like PtP, it isn’t great; it lacks a single really great song (although I do like “Winedark Open Sea”), and we know that Paul can write those in spades.

HOPE: Off the Ground (1993), 1/10: As Matthew states so succinctly above, OtG lacks a single really great song. The only track I ever spent time with was, yes, “Winedark Open Sea”, a decent enough slow groove…but it’s still not worthy enough to make a post Beatle Macca Top 100. Paul’s never made an album that could be scored as a straight up zero out of 10 as his inherent melodic gift is always somewhere in the fabric of every full length he creates…which is to say there will always be at least a minute of head spinning pop beauty on whatever he does. But out of all the latter day Macca releases, those sweet bits are by far the hardest to find on OtG.

Flaming Pie (1997)

MATTHEW: Flaming Pie (1997), 8/10: I’d pretty much given up on Macca by this point, no longer listening to anything recorded by him after Wings disbanded. But “Beautiful Night” got my attention: it captured those elements of melody and inventiveness that made Paul’s pop so brilliant. I loved it and still do. It took me to Pie, a year or two later (yeah, I was a tad slow, but it was that mid-30s crazy busy career and family time for me), and suddenly I was one of those Beatle/Macca fans between youth and middle age revisiting and rebuying albums. (As I was getting back into ELO too, the Jeff Lynne varnish on much of the album appealed to me.) So how does Pie stand up now? As we write, the Archive Collection reissue recently came out, getting attention and praise. And the album is pretty damn good. In fact, I still love the first six tracks (nicely sequenced from “The Song We Were Singing” to “Calico Skies”); the title track grates a tad, and in the second half there are a few of those collaborative tracks that Paul had more fun making that I have listening to (often the case with his 80s-90s albums), but they are offset by gems like “Heaven on a Sunday,” “Little Willow,” and “Beautiful Night.” For me, this is by far his best album of his varied 80–90s middle period.

HOPE: Flaming Pie (1997), 5/10: True confession. In the years leading up to Pie I’d fallen completely under the spell of Britpop, utterly besotted with everything from Elastica to yes, unabashed Beatle worshippers, Oasis. And so when Pie was released I was not really receptive to it, as I was so entrenched and enraptured by big brash Britpop with its massive singalong chorus’s and druggy, sexy looks. And so I listened to Pie a few times, cherry picked the couple of songs I liked, popped them on a mix cd and filed it away. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. I get why some people find that Jeff Lynne production stamp irksome on the albums he produces but it’s not as intrusive here as it was on say George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. The songs I like best on Pie actually remind me of vintage Wings tracks namely “Great Day” which sounds like a not so distant cousin of Red Rose Speedway’s groovy, dirty “Big Barn Bed” and “Heaven On A Sunday”a sort of soul song with a really fine vintage Speed Of Sound guitar break hiding in it (from Paul’s son James ). Pie is a slow burn of an album, the kind you need to play on repeat for a while before it infiltrates.

End of Part 3

Coming in Part 4, the 21st century! Plus a whip ’round the Macca side projects and compilations. Get comfortable, it’s a big one…check it out here

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