McCartney: A Life in Lyrics podcast is another hit for the ex-Beatle — review

The new podcast McCartney: A Life in Lyrics is drawn from hours of conversations between Paul McCartney and the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, originally conducted for the book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. That book, in which the ex-Beatle told the stories behind his songs, was published two years ago, which means the series is recycling old material. Ordinarily, this would be a poor basis for a podcast but, this being McCartney, one of the most famous musicians on the planet, allowances should probably be made.

In an extended trailer, Muldoon explains how he and McCartney sat across from one another with a pile of lyric sheets as they went through The Beatles’ catalogue. Reflecting on his inspiration and artistic processes, McCartney ended up recalling snapshots from his life, making their book the closest to an autobiography he is likely to get (McCartney has said he has no interest in writing his life story). The podcast, Muldoon says, is therefore “a masterclass, a memoir and an improvised journey” which sounds a lot like hyperbole but turns out to be entirely accurate.

The series comprises 12 weekly episodes, each dedicated to an individual song, and it opens with a biggie: “Eleanor Rigby”. Many of the stories of its creation will be familiar to Beatles fans, such as the name being based on the actor Eleanor Bron, who starred in the film Help!, and the fact that Father McKenzie was going to be Father McCartney until it occurred to the singer that people would think he was depicting his dad. There are other more surprising details such as American listeners mistaking the words “box of poppies” for “box of puppies”; that “the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” refers to Nivea cream, which was used by McCartney’s mum; and the song’s staccato strings being inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

McCartney: A Life in Lyrics is rare among music podcasts in being able to play lengthy excerpts of the music under discussion — such are the perks of interviewing a copyright-owning Beatle. But the most striking element is the enthusiasm with which McCartney looks back at his life and his songs. You might expect a man who has spent decades being asked to relive a 15-year period in his life to be weary of trotting out these stories, but here he tells them as if for the first time. “Oh my God,” he exclaims at the start. “I wanted to become a person who wrote songs, I wanted to be someone whose life was in music.”

The opening two episodes (the second is on “Back in the U.S.S.R.”) come in at just under 20 minutes each; it’s testament to McCartney’s charm, charisma and his understanding that no detail is too insignificant that I wanted both to last longer. For a series built on recordings never intended for public consumption, McCartney: A Life in Lyrics is a triumph.

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