The new Paul McCartney box set includes more than 50 years of singles – 65 re-creations of previous 7-inch releases and 15 new ones, plus a book – in a wood crate that comes with straps to make it easier to lift. Have silly love songs ever weighed so much? It’s the ultimate way to preserve, and sell, a music format that was originally intended to be disposable.
All told, The 7” Singles Box makes a solid case for McCartney as the auteur of the three-minute pop song. In The Beatles, McCartney helped remake the album as an ambitious art form – but he remains devoted enough to singles to keep a jukebox in his London office. By some measures, he’s the most successful singles artist of all time: The Beatles are No. 1 on Billboard’s ranking of the top-charting Hot 100 acts of all time and McCartney is No. 13 as a solo artist (including his work with Wings). When it came out, “Mull of Kintyre” was the best-selling single in U.K. history – and it may not even be one of the dozen best songs here.
Appropriately for its focus on singles, this set offers a refreshingly warts-and-all picture of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. (McCartney owns the rights to his solo recordings, so the decision was his, and it’s a good one.) At a time when most of his ’60s and ’70s peers are editing their legacies, McCartney includes everything, from the sublime (“Band on the Run,” “My Brave Face,” a live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and much more) to the silly (“Ode to a Koala Bear;” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae,” the bass-heavy B-side of “Wonderful Christmastime”).
The dig against McCartney is that he often didn’t live up to his genius, but maybe he just wasn’t always in the mood. Part of the point of Wings was that making music in the shadow of The Beatles was freighted by the kind of expectations that make it hard to make great pop singles. John Lennon and George Harrison both began their solo careers making music that was arguably more adventurous, but both of them also eventually got back to basics. McCartney certainly wasn’t afraid to be ambitious: One of these singles, previously unreleased as such, features the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Another is “We All Stand Together,” from the movie Rupert and the Frog Song. You get the sense that he got a kick out of both of them. So will many listeners.
More than any other major artist, McCartney proved that pop music could be both artistically ambitious and awfully silly – sometimes even both at once – and succeed on its own terms either way. Not all of these songs were received well when they were released, but many deserve another listen – especially as singles. So does the music McCartney continues to make. As big as this box is, “it doesn’t include my latest single,” McCartney writes in the foreword, “because I haven’t written that one yet.”