Paul McCartney has a new album out. I was shut in a room with it for a morning the other week, in order to write a review for Uncut magazine, and I came out feeling it contains five songs — “Early Days”, “On My Way to Work”, “Looking at Her”, “Scared” and the title track, “New” — that would make a fabulous EP, if such things still existed. Five really good new songs: not a bad return at this stage of the game.
None of them, however, comes within a mile of matching my favourite McCartney track, which is one that hardly anybody, outside the realm of the fanatics, seems to have heard, or at least to remember. Perhaps that’s because it’s hidden away on Wings’ Wild Life, one of his least memorable albums, recorded in 1971, when his credibility was not exactly at its apogee.
It’s called “Dear Friend“. It’s a six-minute ballad with a simple but beautifully contoured melody: two four-line verses, repeated in sequence to make four verses in all, each 12 bars long and each separated by a pause or a moment’s hesitation. No chorus. A haunting lyric: “Dear friend, what’s the time? / Is this really the borderline? / Does it really mean so much to you? / Are you afraid, or is it true?” — and then: “Dear friend, throw the wine / I’m in love with a friend of mine / Really, truly, young and newly wed / Are you a fool, or is it true?” And the most gloriously subtle arrangement, based on a laconic piano, a bass guitar, minimal drumming and the dark glimmer of a vibraphone (all of which I imagine he played himself), each verse individually coloured by a small string orchestra, a couple of oboes, or briefly, in the final minute, a gorgeously grainy horn section that sounds like a brass band who’ve walked in off the street.
The whole thing is so plain, so underplayed, so brilliantly understated by whoever worked with him on the arrangement, that you can hardly believe it’s Paul McCartney in his solo guise at all. His singing, some of it in his falsetto register, is perfectly attuned to the sobriety of the arrangement, not least when he introduces a dozen bars of scat-singing in which his tone and note-choice are as eloquent as words. I don’t think he’s ever sounded so unselfconsciously introspective.
You only have to read the lyric to see why most people assume the song is about John Lennon, with whom his relationship was then at its most difficult. Perhaps that’s true. I prefer to take the Bob Dylan line, which is that it’s an artist’s job to take the particular and turn it into the universal, to play fast and loose with the truth in order to create a new and greater one. So when I hear “Dear Friend”, I encounter an emotion that isn’t tied to whatever its factual origin may or may not have been, and which somehow illuminates and expands feelings of my own. That’s art for you.
And for some reason he chose to hide it away towards the end of the second side of a mediocre LP. You can’t believe he wasn’t proud of it. If I had to take a Beatle-related record to a desert island, it wouldn’t be “I’ll Be Back” or “In My Life”: it would be this.
* The photograph of Wings — Denny Seiwell, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and Denny Laine — is from the cover of Wild Life and was taken by Barry Lategan.