Book of the week: The Lyrics by Paul McCartney
McCartney’s charming delve into his back catalogue is the ‘closest to an autobiography we’ll get’
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“With a gravity, reverence and sense of occasion that hasn’t been seen since the Levites rolled out the Ark of the Covenant, the complete lyrics of Paul McCartney are published at last,” said John Walsh in The Sunday Times.
There are “nearly 900 shiny pages of the songs, from All My Loving to Your Mother Should Know, alongside their creator’s explanatory notes”, along with photos galore – most previously unpublished – “plus scribbled first drafts, pencilled music scores and adoring fan letters”. And the “whole gallimaufry” is “squeezed into two breezeblock-sized hardbacks, sheathed in a monochrome slipcase”.
Is this epic production worth the hefty cover price? Certainly not for the lyrics alone, which when “shorn of music can seem very flat” (“Beep beep beep beep yeah”, from Drive My Car, “is nothing until it’s transformed into ‘beepbeep, m’beepbeep YEAH!’”). However, as McCartney admits, his commentaries are the “closest to an autobiography we’ll get” – and many of them are “genuinely revealing”.
Written in conjunction with the Irish poet and academic Paul Muldoon, the commentaries are indeed “hugely readable”, said Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. In them, McCartney offers his frankest portrait yet of his turbulent relationship with John Lennon, and provides moving snapshots of his childhood. Mary, his mother – who died when he was 14 – is pictured whistling while cooking in the kitchen, and later comes to her son in a dream, saying: “Everything will be all right. Let it be.”
Jim, his father, a music-loving cotton salesman, is glimpsed masterminding family singalongs. It’s true that the book’s “highly original organisation” makes it easy for McCartney to avoid uncomfortable topics – such as his ex-wife Heather Mills. But no matter. “Devoid of rock cliché”, and sumptuously produced, “The Lyrics is a triumph”.
There’s a “slightly pretentious tone” to this venture, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph: Muldoon argues that McCartney is “one of the greatest literary figures of our time”. Not all of his lyrics corroborate this assessment: some, indeed, “don’t really bear careful scrutiny”.
What you ultimately read this book for is the pleasure of hearing McCartney “talk about the rise of a band composed largely of working-class teens who changed the world forever”, said David Kirby in The Washington Post. “Nearly 60 years later, it’s still an amazing story” – and it’s one that McCartney recounts with generosity and charm.
Allen Lane 874pp £75; The Week Bookshop £60
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