While perhaps most often characterized (or even sometimes dismissed) as the cheerful Beatle, known for songs of optimism and resiliency like “Penny Lane,” “We Can Work it Out,” and “Good Day Sunshine,” some of Paul McCartney’s strongest compositions are those that sprang from a much darker place. Listeners are no doubt quite familiar with some of these, including “Let it Be,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and, of course, “Yesterday.” The seven pieces described below provide further evidence, however, that Macca is much more than simply the composer of silly love songs.
#7 “That Day is Done” (Flowers in the Dirt, 1989) Apparently a cry of regret from beyond the grave, this doleful and mysterious song describes the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with the fact that he has broken a covenant. Images of his impotence are repeated throughout the piece, and while the listener can ultimately only guess at the cryptic meaning of the song, it is a powerful reminder of McCartney’s ability to convey the loneliness and desperation of the human condition.
#6 “Jenny Wren” (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005) Along with “Michelle,” “Little Willow,” and “Eleanor Rigby,” this song is another example of McCartney’s considerable skill as a portraitist. Loosely based on the character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend, “Jenny Wren” succinctly identifies the source for both the loss and the renewal of inspiration. Pedro Eustache’s pensive duduk solo precedes the song’s final verses, where McCartney introduces hope, both for our broken world, and for Jenny, one of the few able to understand and surmount life’s challenges.
#5 “You Won’t See Me” (Rubber Soul, 1965) Often overlooked on an album full of classic songs about women, this composition details McCartney’s frustrations with his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. Longer and more developed than many of Paul’s previous songs, it portrays his gradual recognition that since communications have broken down and precious opportunities have been squandered, the relationship may be in its death throes.
#4 I’m Down” (single, 1965) The Beatles closed many of their concerts with this shouter, McCartney’s homage to Little Richard, whose “Long Tall Sally” had previously concluded many of their performances. There is nothing so disconcerting to a young man as being pushed away and laughed at, and, both in its lyrics and performance, “I’m Down” powerfully captures these twin blows to youth’s pride. McCartney’s closing vocal gymnastics may provide partial catharsis.
#3 “The Fool on the Hill” (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967) McCartney’s strongest contribution to the ill-fated film is another wonderful character study. Like both Lennon’s “Nowhere Man” and his own “Eleanor Rigby,” the fool is both isolated and lonely. But there is a certain pride to the fool’s stance, a strength that indicates he is comfortable in his own skin and content to watch the world go round and round, detached though he may be from its inhabitants and the mainstream. Rather than frustration, the man with the foolish grin instead shows great resolve. One feels his creator approves and understands the grounds for his secret smile.
#2 “The Long and Winding Road” (Let it Be, 1970) Though it may well have contributed to the song becoming a #1 hit, Phil Spector’s elaborate arrangement earned McCartney’s lasting ire. Clearly the orchestration lends the piece a more sentimental tone than the composer intended. The production cheapens the strength of the stark plea which forms the song’s center. A lost soul, the forsaken narrator seeks reassurance; McCartney’s phrase “let me know the way” has an almost biblical feel to it. This is a man in pain, who, at song’s end, is left still wondering if any door remains open to him.
#1 “For No One” (Revolver, 1966) If another song of frustration inspired by Jane Asher, “For No One” is presented in a more stately and restrained manner than “You Won’t See Me.” McCartney’s brilliant use of the second person aptly portrays the contrast between the reactions of the song’s two lovers and may have provided him the distance necessary to express his bafflement and eventual resignation. The simple piano accompaniment and Alan Civil’s French horn lend a controlled feel to the song, and one suspects that the composer is striving to match Jane Asher’s apparent sense of detachment with a certain iciness of his own.
Photo: Paul McCartney (Getty Images)