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Linda McCartney - Wide Prairie Music Album Reviews

Linda McCartney’s first and only studio album was released to resounding silence shortly after her death in 1998. But she and Paul shared a musical chemistry as singular as Yoko and John’s, and as emblematic of their shared interests.

Linda Eastman met her second husband Paul McCartney in 1967 at a club in London called Bag O’Nails. The Beatles were busy launching their new album Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Linda was photographing the event. Divorced and supporting her young daughter Heather, Linda had begun making a name for herself in photography. She was noted for her ability to freeze-frame rock stars in moments of quicksilver humanity—see this perfect picture of Jimi Hendrix yawning, or Jimmy Page making room for an older lady to pass him on the sidewalk. Decades later, Paul said he “just saw her across the room and fancied her like mad.” They were married two years later.


As with Yoko and John, Linda’s interests bent the course of Paul’s own career—if Paul was ever associated with animal rights activism or vegetarianism, it was because those were Linda’s concerns, and she devoted her life to them, as well as to her family and photography. And as with Yoko, Linda became an instant magnet for misogynist hostility—she was an interloper, a non-talent leading her genius husband astray. When Paul put Linda’s name beside his for his second post-Beatles album, Ram, the result was the most roundly belittled release of Paul’s career, the one that Rolling Stone called “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far.”

When she started a new band with him called Wings—well, they were Wings. Not even Paul and Linda liked Wings: “We just picked the wrong people,” Linda later said. “Paul is such a good musician, and none of the Wings were good enough to play with him…including me, for sure.”

Over the next several decades, Linda and Paul remained inseparable. Linda would become a force in vegetarian cooking, releasing several cookbooks and developing a line of meatless frozen foods. She stepped away from the spotlight, more or less—she still popped up in Paul’s videos from time to time, but the era in which she played keyboards next to her husband, decorating the stage with lava lamps and scarves, was over.

Yet her music career never strictly ended. Over the years, she released a trickle of songs as one-off singles and EPs, where they would not attract undue (and presumably unkind) attention. One of those songs, “Seaside Woman” (under the pseudonym Suzy and the Red Stripes), became a minor hit, peaking at #59 in the U.S. In 1985, she cowrote and executive-produced the animated children’s special Rupert and the Frog Song, which featured “Seaside Woman” and the surreal “Oriental Nightfish.” But otherwise, Linda McCartney ceased to be known in the public eye for her music.

When she died of breast cancer on April 17, 1998, she and Paul were in the process of assembling her first and only studio album. The track listing was composed of odds and ends she had written with Paul over the years, and the result was released to resounding silence shortly after her death. “Let’s just note, as gently as possible, that Wide Prairie is not any good,” wrote the Washington Post. And that—once again—was it.

Now that Wide Prairie is being reissued, it’s probably time to look at Linda’s music a little more squarely. Yes, there are painful moments here, particularly her attempts at a “howdy, pardner”-style country accent. But she and Paul shared a musical chemistry as enviable and singular as Yoko and John’s, and as emblematic of their shared interests. The songs here glow with the comfort and warmth of domesticity. “I’m the cook of the house,” Linda boasted on the song called “Cook of the House,” followed by the sound of a sizzling pan. Domesticity was also the wellspring for Ram, and showed just how slyly subversive such celebrations could be (“Eat at Home” is not about cooking.)

They also harmonized together in a way that was hard to imitate—Linda’s wild, untrained voice against Paul’s choirboy tenor generated a messy, gratifying wholeness. Linda’s voice is thin, yes, but decades of punk (and a few years of SoundCloud rap) have trained pop listeners to hear differently. There is a peculiar yowling joy to their rumpled reggae-lite cover of “Mister Sandman,” a trifle that nevertheless feels as inviting as a hammock. She made him sound rougher, and he made her sound sweeter. They sounded better together.

Away from critical and commercial scrutiny, Linda allowed the antic musical theater touches of Ram to run amuck. Wide Prairie is silly and exuberant, almost relentlessly so, but also deeply strange: Nearly every song is an exhaustive mini-medley of pop-song styles—music-hall oom-pah horns, country fiddles, skiffle keyboards, electric-blues guitar riffing, monster-movie synthesizers on “The White-Coated Man.” Sometimes, when all the horns are tooting, it can feel like you’re being trampled underfoot by an army of first graders.

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But poke beneath the whimsy and you will find a delirious buffet approach to the American songbook not too far from Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle. Her ear for melody was highly unusual, and she made the kinds of harmonic leaps that other songwriters did or would not. The piano ballad “Love’s Full Glory” picks its way across the keys with the kind of wayward, meandering melody that Paul was noted for, but with unpredictable stagger steps in the progression that felt inimitably Linda’s.

The best moments are the simplest and most relaxed, with the fewest instruments and the most straightforward words. “When it comes, you will go with quiet dignity/Across the yard, up the ramp,” she sang on “Cow,” a song about exactly that. “Going to meet the final man/With nothing on your face/Except for that familiar beauty/And he will eat you/Because he didn’t look.” The words might provoke giggles on the page, but in the song, they are disarmingly sweet—Linda plays a Casio keyboard as a backing track, its tinny sound a reminder of the childlike innocence of the message. What child, after all, hasn’t come to the horrified realization that the cute animals in the field are the same ones we eat?

Though few current artists acknowledge her as a godmother, you can hear echoes of Linda in Girlpool, in Fleet Foxes, in any number of indie pop and freak-folk albums. One might say she got the last laugh, but she didn’t seem the type to need it. “I always thought I could do anything I liked doing,” she told Playboy. She seemed to live her life in accordance with an internal compass, with serene disregard for the opinions of observers. She liked making music, she liked taking pictures, she liked spending time with her husband. When she died, it was in Paul’s arms.


View my Flipboard Magazine.

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