It would be easy to fill the rest of this review space with the titles of less-than-print-worthy lyrics from McCartney’s vast catalog. One can’t blame him for not including goofy doggerel such as “Oo You,” “Mumbo” and “Bip Bop.” Nor should one fault McCartney for the pride he takes in the lyrics selected for these books, though some are treacherously close to doggerel, too. (I’m thinking of “My Love” and “Live and Let Die,” the latter of which has been rewritten since the original published sheet music to eliminate “this ever-changing world in which we live in,” though the amended lyric is still awfully trite.) To read over the words to these 154 songs is to be impressed not merely with McCartney’s productivity but with the fertility of his imagination and the potency of his offhand, unfussy style. The best of the songs collected here (“For No One,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “When Winter Comes,” “On My Way to Work” and quite a few more) reflect eyes fixed on the small niceties and curiosities of everyday life and a mind that bounces freely, taking childlike pleasure in that freedom. “The Lyrics” makes clear that McCartney has written on a high level long past his Beatles years, and even the weakest lyrics in the books have a character all their own: a feeling of giddy playfulness and unguarded experimentation. They’re a joy to read because they exude the joy their maker took in their making.
Like most pop lyrics, the words to McCartney’s songs are considerably more effective with the music they were written for. With the addition of melody, harmony, instruments, the human voice and studio electronics, a piece of recorded music can come together like, say, “Come Together” — a song by Lennon that McCartney transformed in the studio by radically altering the music. “The Lyrics” does not present a partial view of McCartney’s songs, though; it presents a different view of them. In the absence of music, the books add to the words with new elements of accompaniment: photographs, reproductions of manuscripts, images of mementos and artifacts related to the songs or the time of their making, and lengthy commentary by McCartney. These materials are far from ancillary and actually constitute the bulk of the contents of “The Lyrics.” (Only 156 of the books’ 874 pages are used for lyrics.)
The commentary was constructed with the aid of Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who also happens to be a rock musician and songwriter. In 24 sessions (face to face before the pandemic, and then by videoconference), Muldoon led McCartney in conversations about the songs and later edited McCartney’s language to produce the first-person prose in the books. The text is loose and ruminative, and it reveals a great deal about what McCartney thinks about life and music, and what he would like us to think about him.
Over and over, McCartney shows how deeply he is steeped in literary history and how much his output as a songwriter has in common with the works of the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. “John never had anything like my interest in literature,” he announces at the top of his commentary on “The End,” before pivoting to a mini-lecture on the couplet as a form. “When you think about it, it’s been the workhorse of poetry in English right the way through. Chaucer, Pope, Wilfred Owen.” Apropos of “Come and Get It,” the trifle he wrote and produced for Badfinger, McCartney notes, “When you’re writing for an audience — as Shakespeare did, or Dickens, whose serialized chapters were read to the public — there’s that need to pull people in.” Aaaah … we realize: Paul really is a word man, the more literary and cerebral Beatle.
As one would expect from the pop star who posed with his baby tucked in his coat on his farm for his first post-Beatles album, McCartney talks with ardor and respect for his parents, his extended family in Liverpool, and the traditional values of hearth and home in general. He attributes the buoyant positivity of his music to the happiness in his family life and, by extension, ascribes the bite and cynicism that distinguishes much of Lennon’s work to the domestic upheaval in John’s early years. To McCartney, a dark view of humanity is a failing and must be a mark of suffering, rather than an attribute of thought.