Sir James Paul McCartney is one of the greatest musicians of all-time. He has “Sir” at the beginning of his name for a reason. While most people who don’t live under a rock know Paul McCartney as the legendary bass player for The Beatles and later as the leader of Wings, his solo career over thirty plus years has been just as impressive.
Even today he is still making ripples in the industry, collaborating with none other than Kanye West on the singles “FourFiveSeconds” and “All Day.” McCartney has been such a huge part of music, and has obtained such a large pedigree, that I’m going to try my best and stick with the task at hand of re-visiting one of his more acclaimed solo albums from 1982, Tug of War.
What’s important to note about this album is, prior to its release, McCartney was going through some tough times in his life. Not only was his former bandmate and revolutionary rock legend John Lennon senselessly murdered, but McCartney was coming off of his worst reviewed solo album to date, McCartney II, which was deemed as a worthless project by one critic. Tug of War was the album that would redeem his career. And it did more than that. Thirty-five years later, it is still critically acclaimed as one of his best amongst his discography. Tug of War is a mix of so many different sounds, but the uniqueness of each song amazingly gels nicely together into a cohesive masterpiece.
While considered a solo album of sorts, the help that he receives on this project makes it seem like a movie with multiple producers and writers taking their turn on each song. With the likes of George Martin, Ringo Starr, Eric Stewart, and Stevie Wonder to help bring this idea together, McCartney expected nothing less than perfection. The first song on this LP, “Tug of War,” shows McCartney’s exceptional understanding of music on full display. The folky-inspired sound mixes nicely together with some background vocals from multiple artists. Then out of nowhere, the track becomes a full-on rock ballad with a grand violin to end it. “Take it Away” is more of an alternative/funky sound with playful lyrics like “Take it away don’t you want to stay until no one else is around.” Very catchy tune with a masterful build-up to the hook, where McCartney mixes in funky drums with a harmonizing trumpet, along with fantastic background vocals once again.
Songs like these are considered classics because of the unusual amount of layers that are added and built into the track. While McCartney’s lyrics aren’t the most amazing on these two singles, the songs still captures the listener and makes him/her sing along. “Somebody Who Cares” is a little less playful and more inspirational, as McCartney reminds people who feel lonely that there is always someone out there who cares. He sets the mood nicely with a banjo thrown in there, and metaphorical lyrics like, “I know that you feel like somebody has taken the wheels off of your car when you have somewhere to go.” The next single, “What’s That You’re Doing?” is an electronic ballad that sounds like it could start off a movie. This is the first of two collaborations with Stevie Wonder, and the funky vibe clashes nicely with Wonder’s intimate sound. The song is so 1980s, it’s great.
The craziness of the album continues with another slow-tempo, depressing vibe on “Here Today.” It’s such a mood change from the previous track that I had to stop and think for a second. The lyrics themselves seem to be up for interpretation. Is McCartney talking about a lover, or is it a possible ode to Lennon? “Ballroom Dancing” is definitely a song that was played at dance parties during the 80s. It sounds like something out of Grease which is an interesting switch-up from McCartney’s style (if there is one). “The Pound is Sinking” is a full on rock song where McCartney stretches his vocals just a little bit more. McCartney shows off his musical prowess once again on “Wanderlust”, where he plays the piano to perfection. The track is a classic and shows that McCartney can do a multitude of things musically. The addition of jazzy instruments comes in a little later on as well.
On “Get It,” McCartney goes a little Brian Wilson on us, with a change in cadency multiple times over a banjo and some drums. I hear a little old-school country also. “Dress Me Up as a Robber” sounds a little Latin, until the guitar hits, making this a funky cultural ballad. This song reminds me of having different foods from different countries on one plate and eating it all at once. Amazingly, it works, and it’s a song that vocally, Tame Impala may have been inspired by. The final song on the original version of this album, “Ebony and Ivory,” features Wonder once again where McCartney puts out one of his most socially conscious songs. An instant classic, the track brings up the issue of race by using the black and white keys on a piano as a metaphor. Wonder and McCartney sing beautifully together to close out the LP by singing, “Ebony and Ivory live together in perfect harmony.” It’s one of those songs that when you hear it, you know it will impact people.
Overall, Tug of War was the revival of a rock, oh wait, musical legend who seemed to be falling apart amidst tragedy and heartbreak. Instead of breaking down, McCartney created a masterpiece of different sounds and cultures that mesh into something extraordinary. Tug of War will go down as one of the most musical albums of all-time, and it is the reason why McCartney’s understanding of different genres is unlike anyone else’s in the industry, even to this day.