I like that John Lennon’s death brought Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr (if only on “Take It Away”) and George Martin (R.I.P.) together into the same room, and even, I’m reading, a failed attempt to enlist George Harrison to perform the solo on “Wanderlust.” And McCartney himself abandons the experimentation of McCartney II for something more reminiscent of what people knew him for.
What results is a second-tier McCartney album, that could easily have been a much better one (though still, maybe not the masterpiece that Rolling Stone‘s Stephen Holden said it was at the time of its release). Slash the leftover doodad from McCartney II (“Be What You See (Link)”) and “Dress Me Up as a Robber” (hideously over-compressed guitar riff and tuneless falsetto even if the section from 0:52-onwards is a surprise); replace with the best songs from Pipes of Peace that was largely written during the same sessions as Tug of War (as per their names, the original intent was to release them as a double album, and when the label denied McCartney, he released two separate albums that were meant to mirror each other) and with “Ebony and Ivory” b-side “Rainclouds.”
And maybe “What’s That You’re Doing” too (one of two songs assisted by Stevie Wonder), which is mostly a 6-minute feel-good time-waster. Actually, interestingly, the first 4 seconds or so remind me endlessly of Brian Eno & David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts just the previous year: digitized funk, “Good morning!”
Surprisingly, “Dress Me Up” aside, 3 of the album’s highlights are the ones that come in clocking under 3 minutes: “Get It” has a lovely country bounce with McCartney’s space-filling “Mmhmm” elevating it from filler status. “The Pound is Sinking” is even better, with a direct hook (punctuated by heavy chords) and some of McCartney’s most physically powerful singing during the climax, textures created by strings and backing vocals while everything is nudged along by expertly placed drumrolls. And of course, there’s “Here Today.” Here’s Popmatters’ Anthony Cusumano, who wrote a well-informed and, thus, informative piece about this album and the following Pipes of Peace: “With a delicate string arrangement courtesy of Martin, it was exactly the sort of track Lennon would have publicly besmirched but privately admired. The lyrics are another story: Lennon undoubtedly would have praised his former partner’s emotional, uncompromisingly honest message. McCartney effectively invites listeners in on his half of a conversation with Lennon, refusing to sugarcoat the complications between them (“Knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart”) but not hiding his genuine affection either (“I am holding back the tears no more—I love you”). While McCartney has frustratingly neglected much of his post-70s output in concert, “Here Today” has been a staple of his set list for the past 13 years.”
Other highlights include the catchy “Ballroom Dancing” (“BALLROOM Dancing!”), “Take It Away,” which Ringo Starr pushes forward until a wall of vocals come in to signal the climax (Paul and Linda McCartney + Eric Stewart) before even louder horns take over; “Somebody Who Cares,” which it’s hard not to think is another song influenced by the specter of John Lennon (interesting bridge, which seemed to aim for something funereal and Latin at the same time, and ended up alone in the woods).
All that being said, my favorite here is the opener and title track. The melody might be familiar (“It’s a tug of warrrrr“; I swear I’ve heard that melody in a musical somewhere), and the string hook or how the drum figure shifts into something more militaristic to the command “We’ll be dancing to the beat of a different drum” both might be a little too on-the-nose but the song recalls “Across the Universe” in its acoustic-to-orchestral sweep.
As for closer “Ebony and Ivory,” I think Pitchfork’s Ron Hart criticism about the dated orchestration is misplaced; McCartney would need another year before he fell prey (like everyone else) to the dated 80’s sound. I think the hatred towards McCartney’s songs marketed towards children – “Yellow Submarine,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “When I’m 64” and, in this case, “Ebony & Ivory” – has been completely undeserved and disproportional to the songs themselves, which are often harmless in message (I thought you guys didn’t listen to lyrics anyway?). Put it this way: none of the above were the worst songs of their respective albums. I dunno, whenever someone overreacts to these, I always picture a bunch of bearded males in a dark room for their Infinite Jest discussion club leading off with a takedown of Bunnicula and Green Eggs and Hamto make themselves feel better about their situation. As expected for a combo like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, there’s no denying the tune, even if it’s easy to deny the schmaltz; the only part that doesn’t get off musically are the digitized vocals.