You’ve gotta feel sorry for Sir James Paul McCartney (MBE). He hasn’t had the best couple of years recently. After a plethora of bad press from allegations made by his ex-wife, Heather Mills, and a nasty divorce in the media spotlight, Paul just wants to get back to doing what he loves- writing, recording and releasing pop music. He’s been doing it since he was a teenager, and has provided us with countless pop hits in his illustrious career. Which brings us to his latest – Memory Almost Full. This is an album that manages to encompass absolutely everything that is great (and everything that is not so great) in record time. It is a smorgasbord of pop and “classic” rock with plenty of twists and charming lyricism.
Never one to go stale, Sir Paul initially throws the listener off guard with the folksy stomp of opening track and lead single “Dance Tonight”. Here, Paul’s boppy basslines are replaced with a wonderful sounding mandolin, an instrument that is a force to be reckoned with in pop music (see “Losing My Religion” for all the proof you need of this). Over the simple instrumentation of a stomp box and the aforementioned mandolin, the lyrics are kept short, sweet and simple- “Everybody gonna dance tonight!”, Paul carelessly sings. “Everybody gonna feel alright!”. Okay, so it’s no “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but it’s a lovely little song that isn’t too demanding and will worm its way into your head, slowly but successfully.
The album is a “back to basics” approach to the McCartney musical style with mixed results, going from songs that sound like they are from The Beatles cutting room floor to songs that could have potentially been hit singles for McCartney’s former band, Wings. The “Back In The U.S.S.R” meets “Jet” rock out track of “Only Mama Knows” is an example of retro done right (it seems to help if you were actually there when the music being paid tribute to now was being made). In addition, “Ever Present Past” and “That Was Me” stand out as two of the best songs Paul has written in the past decade. They are retrospective, but not in that really sad, pathetic way that Ringo Starr has been doing on his past couple of albums (even McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace” is better than Starr’s latest, Liverpool 8). More, they are in quiet awe of the life that he has lead, and how quickly it’s all gone – “It went by, it flew by, in a flash”, Sir Paul muses on “Ever Present Past”. On this track, he also confesses that, with “too much on his plate”, he doesn’t “have time to be a decent lover”. You don’t want to think it, but you can’t help but wonder if Heather knew anything about this.
“That Was Me” gives us Sir Paul looking back at the little things in his life, remembering doing things like “playing conkers at the bus stop” and “Merseybeatin’ with the band”. It amazes him to think that the person that is in all those photographs, all those memories, even all those songs, was “the same me that stands here today”. A simple idea executed terrifically well.
Of course, mixed results obviously aren’t going to be entirely positive. Songs such as “See Your Sunshine” and “Gratitude” represent the much lamer, daggier McCartney of the mid-to-late 80s, featuring cheesy lyrics, grating harmonies and several cringeworthy moments. It’s best to only listen to these tracks once or twice to get what I mean; or better still, skipped entirely.
Then, there’s “Mr. Bellamy”. No, it’s not about the guitar wizard that fronts Muse. Mr. Bellamy is actually a cat, or so we are lead to believe, of whom McCartney sings from the perspective of. Over an erratic piano loop that you can’t help but think sounds a little like “Chocolate Rain”, Paul sings loudly and proudly about how he’s “not coming down” (from a tree, we would believe) and that he “likes it up here”. In a lower key, he sings from the perspective of the firefighters trying to get said cat out of said tree. It’s all very silly, but at the same time sticks out as a highlight of the album being adventurous and genuinely interesting in both song structure and musicianship.
Memory Almost Full really does have something for everyone, from the passing McCartney fan to the McCartney fanatics. It’s an album that can go seamlessly from the beautiful piano ballad “The End Of The End” to the rocking Queen-meets-“Kashmir” stomp of closer “Nod Your Head” without throwing you completely. With the release of 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard and now this, it seems that Sir Paul has nothing to prove and is free to make just the kind of music he wants to. He may be turning 65 this year, but this album especially show signs of a possible Johnny Cash-style final run of great albums.
One can only hope. Watch this space.
Today, Memory Almost Full seems to be most notable for being the first album to be released on Starbuck’s new music label. It’s my hopes that, in the future, it’ll be much better known for just being an album full of fantastic pop songs. This isn’t his best album, but it’s quite clearly up there.
Much of this was apparently recorded before Chaos. Who knows why he shelved it. I guess McCartney was wanting to honor the 15th anniversary of McCartney II or something. At any rate, it’s wonderful this album was released, ‘cos it’s very good. The most out-of-place song here is surprisingly “Dance Tonight,” which was released through a fairly popular music video on YouTube. It’s rather minimal and 100 percent pleasant. Somehow it still manages to be quite an endearing experience, and I’m glad that it’s included here.
But right after that, there’s “Ever Present Past,” one of his best straight pop-rockers in years. The bass guitar there is absolutely amazing… I guess that proves that McCartney’s reputation as one of the greatest bassists of all time wasn’t for nothing.
The vast majority of these songs, such as the fabulous “Mr. Bellamy” and “Only Mama Knows” contain such varied textures with wild and enchanting song development. Geez, this album definitely isn’t boring that’s for sure. I mean, don’t expect Metallica or anything — this is good ole Paul McCartney — but every track sounds like he cared about it. This is an interesting album and there’s nothing that even approaches throwaway status.
The variety throughout the album is definitely worth noting. A few songs sound quite a bit like Beatles throwbacks… I have no difficulty imagining “Vintage Clothes” to have been written for Abbey Road and “Nod Your Head” is nothing if it isn’t a tamer version of “Helter Skelter.” (Well, he’s reducing it to merely nodding the head, ya know.) Like Chaos and Creation before it, this album very much sees Paul looking back to his past. That said, there’s also a little bit of looking toward the future with an oddly optimistic song about his death, “The End of the End.”
The production is utterly wonderful. Everything’s in their proper place, and there’s very little that sounded like a bad instrumentation idea. All you need to hear to prove this point is the true gem of the album, “House of Wax.” It’s refined but somewhat unusual if you pay close attention to it, and it is some of the finest studio work ever to bear the name “Paul McCartney.” It’s really fabulous.
The one complaint I have with this is that the melodies aren’t always perfect. Certainly, I’m basing that from his already established reputation of being one of the finest songwriters of all time! These melodies are much better than most songwriters can ever make them. However, this is a minor shortcoming that’s worth noting.
I don’t wish to tout this album as some sort of great masterpiece, but it’s certainly a distinguished and entertaining work. This isn’t McCartney’s best work, but it certainly approaches that territory.
Paul McCartney is truly in a class of his own, but not always for the right reasons. The enduring cultural importance of his accomplishments– and the fact that his private life still moves tabloids in the UK– affords him a greater stature than your average classic-rock icon. His formidable bank balance suggests that his ongoing recording and performing career is motivated by something more significant than financial gain, but unlike fellow 60s survivors Bob Dylan and Neil Young, McCartney’s senior years have not produced an album to challenge the notion that all his best work is decades behind him.
He came close with 2005’s mostly acoustic Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, a deliberate and welcome retreat to the homespun simplicity of his 1970 self-titled debut. But while Chaos may have been the best album of his post-Wings career, it still felt a touch too familiar to constitute a Time Out of Mind-style late-career surprise. You have to wonder if McCartney’s unwavering dedication to maintaining his cheery, “cute one” persona negates the sort of sobering introspection that aging rockers often require to create revelatory, relevant albums in their sixties.
That McCartney’s latest album is being released through an exclusive retail agreement with Starbucks only serves to reinforce the most damning stereotypes about him: he’s too safe, too typical, too square. And on first song “Dance Tonight” , he plays right to latte-swilling crowd, with an egregiously innocuous mandolin-folk hootenanny (“Everybody gonna dance tonight/ Everybody gonna feel alright”) custom-built to have his target demographic tapping along on the steering wheels of their Beemers. It’s perhaps the least exciting, least arousing song about moving to music since Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance”. But as Memory Almost Full plays out, you get the sense that by opening the album with this trifle, McCartney is perhaps intentionally pandering to those stereotypes, and that “Dance Tonight” could very well be a sitting-duck decoy for an album that turns out to be a lot more idiosyncratic than its coffee-chain marketing plan suggests.
For one, McCartney isn’t just writing love songs here; he’s writing sex songs. Take the boudoir-bound white soul of “See Your Sunshine”, which, if you can forgive the lame mad/sad/glad rhyme scheme, could be the smoothest (read: horniest) thing he’s written. And if “Only Mama Knows” plays like a standard-issue rocker– a less fun “Junior’s Farm”, to be exact– it could be the first song he’s written about trolling airport lounges for one-night stands. All of which would suggest that Memory Almost Full is Macca’s post-Heather rebound album. As he insisted in last month’s Pitchfork interview, his recent, media-saturated divorce proceedings had no bearing on the songwriting, much of which predates Chaos. However, at this stage in his career, one of the most daring things McCartney could do is show us that even the eternal thumbs-aloft optimist we see hamming it up at photo-ops and awards-show presentations can occasionally crack under the scrutiny. The stress seems to show on the opening line of “Ever Present Past” (“I’ve got too much on my plate/ Ain’t got no time to be a decent lover”) but the song turns out to be just another reminiscence for the good ol’ days, albeit with a perky new-wave rhythm that’s almost novel enough to make you overlook the fact the song lacks a real payoff chorus.
These songs comprise Memory’s patchy first half, betraying the album’s piecemeal recording process. But even these unremarkable turns are dotted with interesting production quirks (the tremolo-heavy guitar fuzz on “Ever Present Past”, the foreboding string sweeps that bookend “Only Mama Knows”) that suggest a more mischievous spirit lurking behind the pedestrian songwriting. Thankfully, McCartney’s oft-overlooked eccentric streak is given freer rein on the album’s second half, which feels far more cohesive and substantial thanks to an Abbey Road-like aversion to between-song gaps and an affinity for choir-like vocal effects that momentarily turns the enterprise into a Queen album. In particular, “Mr. Bellamy” rates as a worthy addition to his canon of stodgy-English-folk character studies, colored by baroque flourishes, baritone backing vocals and a coda reminiscent of the eerie, dying moments of “Magical Mystery Tour”. McCartney can be guilty of tripping the light bombastic (see: the squealing guitar solos on overblown power ballad “House of Wax”), but he also knows when to keep it lean and mean: “Nod Your Head” sounds like “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” as remixed by Sonic Youth, a blues goof given a palpably more threatening edge by a spark-shower of abrasive feedback textures.
Piano ballad “The End of the End”– an uncharacteristically somber meditation on looming death– is being positioned as Memory’s defining moment, but the obligatory string-section swells and a too-cute whistling solo detract from its affectingly melancholic melody. For a more honest portrait of Macca ’07, look to Memory’s best (and loopiest) song, the self-effacing retro-culture commentary “Vintage Clothes”. The sprightly piano intro initially suggests a rewrite of Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me”, but its West Coast idyll is soon pushed askew by a skittering dub break and subliminal synth/bass frequencies; top it off with some vintage Wings-style harmonies and you’ve got a prog-pop triumph just waiting to be to covered by the New Pornographers. Sure, the song’s opening salvo (“Don’t live in the past”) is a bit rich coming from someone who still makes millions by singing 40-year-old songs in sports arenas. But for the two minutes and 21 seconds it takes for “Vintage Clothes” to traverse its shape-shifting universe, the sentiment rings true– because the song proves that McCartney still knows the difference between just singing about the past and measuring up to it.
Allusion to the digital world though it may be, there’s a sweet, elegiac undercurrent to the title of Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full, an acknowledgement that it was written and recorded when McCartney was 64, the age he mythologized on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released almost exactly 40 years before Memory.
Certainly, McCartney has mortality on the mind, but this isn’t an entirely unusual occurrence for him in this third act of his solo career. Ever since his wife Linda‘s death from cancer in 1998, he’s been dancing around the subject, peppering Flaming Pie with longing looks back, grieving by throwing himself into the past on the covers album Run Devil Run, slowly coming to terms with his status as the old guard on the carefully ruminative Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.
But if that previous record was precise, bearing all the hallmarks of meticulous producer Nigel Godrich, Memory Almost Full is startlingly bright and frequently lively, an album that embraces McCartney’s unerring gift for melody. Yet for as pop as it is, this is not an album made with any illusion that Paul will soon have a succession of hit singles: it’s an art-pop album, not unlike either of the McCartney albums. Sometimes this is reflected in the construction — the quick succession of short songs at the end, uncannily (and quite deliberately) sounding like a suite — sometimes in the lyrics, but the remarkable thing is that McCartney never sounds self-consciously pretentious here, as if he’s striving to make a major statement. Rather, he’s quietly taking stock of his life and loves, his work and achievements.
Unlike latter-day efforts by Johnny Cash or the murky Daniel Lanois-produced albums by Bob Dylan, mortality haunts the album, but there’s no fetishization of death. Instead, McCartney marvels at his life — explicitly so in the disarmingly guileless “That Was Me,” where he enthuses about his role in a stage play in grammar school with the same vigor as he boasts about playing the Cavern Club with the Beatles — and realizes that when he reaches “The End of the End,” he doesn’t want anything more than the fond old stories of his life to be told.
This matter-of-fact acknowledgement that he’s in the last act of his life hangs over this album, but his penchant for nostalgia — this is the man who wrote the sepia-toned music hall shuffle “Your Mother Should Know” before he was 30, after all — has lost its rose-tinted streak. Where he once romanticized days gone by, McCartney now admits that we’re merely living with “The Ever Present Past,” just like how although we live in the present, we still wear “Vintage Clothes.” He’s no longer pining for the past, since he knows where the present is heading, yet he seems disarmingly grateful for where his journey has taken him and what it has meant for him, to the extent that he slings no arrows at his second wife, Heather Mills, he only offers her “Gratitude.” Given the nastiness of the coverage of his recent divorce, Paul might be spinning his eternal optimism a bit hard on this song, but it isn’t forced or saccharine — it fits alongside the clear-eyed sentiment of the rest of Memory Almost Full. It rings true to the open-heartedness of his music, and the album delivers some of McCartney’s best latter-day music. Memory Almost Full is so melodic and memorable, it’s easy to take for granted his skill as a craftsman, particularly here when it feels so natural and unforced, even when it takes left turns, which it thankfully does more than once. Best of all, this is the rare pop meditation on mortality that doesn’t present itself as a major statement, yet it is thematically and musically coherent, slowly working its way under your skin and lodging its way into your cluttered memory.
On the surface, it’s bright and accessible, as easy to enjoy as the best of Paul’s solo albums, but it lingers in the heart and mind in a way uncommon to the rest of his work, and to many other latter-day albums from his peers as well.