Vincent P. Benitez’s examination of Paul McCartney’s solo music bears a succinct title, with little left to the imagination. The Words and Music of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years is not a biography (though it opens with a brief “Biographical Sketch”), nor a chronicle of McCartney’s work as a Beatle. Beginning with 1970’s McCartney and carrying through to 2007’s Memory Almost Full, Benitez’s text offers insight on nearly every album track released by his subject. Non-music majors may find themselves frequently consulting the book’s glossary, as Benitez’s primary interest is each song’s technical structure.
This makes the book nearly impossible to recommend for a casual McCartney fan. Though not without merit as a reference guide, the book provides very little context as it moves from one album to the next. Benitez painstakingly details the chord progressions of each song, going into further detail about cadences and modes. Eyes will glaze over, understandably so, for readers with little to no music theory background.
For those with a music background, all the detail probably won’t add up to an appreciably better understanding of McCartney as a composer. Benitez doesn’t build an overall thesis of McCartney’s methods. Rather than linking recurring motifs or singling out stylistic breakthroughs, Benitez dutifully progresses through the broad discography providing a paragraph or two for each song.
As Benitez points out in his introduction, there have been few serious studies of McCartney’s vast body of work. In fact, despite the relative inclusiveness of The Words and Music of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years, Benitez limited the scope by excluding several important aspects of McCartney’s discography. Non-album B-sides are almost entirely ignored (even in the case of 1993’s Off the Ground, which saw an entire album’s worth of additional material released on singles). Compositions written for other artists (often with heavy participation from McCartney) are similarly left out.
Benitez does, however, include fairly substantial analysis of McCartney’s major classical works, Liverpool Oratorio (1991), Standing Stone (1997), and Ecce Cor Meum (2006). These sections are easily the best in the book, as Benitez seems more comfortable writing about classical music. Since many fans of McCartney’s pop career often overlook these releases, the time spent discussing them is very welcome. Unfortunately there is a general lack of critical analysis — a problem that dogs the entirety of The Words and Music of Paul McCartney.
Were it not for the author’s personal anecdotes in the opening acknowledgements, the reader would be hard pressed to tell whether Benitez actually likes Paul McCartney’s music. Aside from a few very general statements of opinion (i.e. “Tug of War is the best album McCartney released since Band on the Run”), the text mostly avoids appraisal. There are, as the author points out, books of sheet music available for much of McCartney’s work. Reading through this information becomes, quite frankly, a little boring. Whether positive or negative, Benitez’s writing would have been far more compelling if he had injected his own evaluation of a given song’s worth.
Any McCartney fan with an ounce of perspective should be willing to admit that not all of his songs are winners. This type of book becomes more interesting when the author expresses his own thoughts, hopefully inspiring readers to revisit material they had once dismissed. A prime example would be the late Ian MacDonald’s critical dissertation of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head (1994).
Benitez certainly has the credentials for such a work. He holds a Ph.D in music theory and is currently an Associate Professor of Music Theory at Pennsylvania State University. But by sticking doggedly to a ‘just the facts’ approach, the writing — though clear and focused — lacks passion. Minus the opening biographical section and closing glossary, only about 150 pages of this hardcover volume are devoted to McCartney’s music. Perhaps Benitez simply had too much ground to cover in too few pages.