Thanks to a song he wrote when he was in his twenties, there must have been no human being in history as self-conscious about turning 64 as Paul McCartney. Life hardly ever works out the way you thought it would, and sure enough his 65th year was hardly the vision of senescent domestic tranquility that he'd imagined. So McCartney did what any good artist would do: He made an album about it. As Memory… read more »
Thanks to a song he wrote when he was in his twenties, there must have been no human being in history as self-conscious about turning 64 as Paul McCartney. Life hardly ever works out the way you thought it would, and sure enough his 65th year was hardly the vision of senescent domestic tranquility that he'd imagined. So McCartney did what any good artist would do: He made an album about it. As Memory Almost Full amply attests, when you're 64, breakin 'up is still hard to do, but you're also not too old for love to put a spring in your step. But most of all, when you're 64, it's a sure bet that you don't have all that much time left, and time itself is going faster and faster.
McCartney has reached a point in life where he's OK with wrapping his memories around him — and us — like a comfy old coat. So while a lot of this masterly, arty and yet unpretentious pop music is as fresh as he's ever done, there are also unabashed musical hints and references, particularly to Abbey Road, the early solo albums and prime-slice Wings; long-time fans will have a field day. Sometimes it's undeniably gloomy: McCartney's typically obtuse rockers ("Only Mama Knows," the Pink Floyd-y "House of Wax") brim with dread and even the ostensibly whimsical "Mr. Bellamy" has a dark side. But much of the album is emotionally affecting without getting overly sentimental — Memory Almost Full examines the past but not with the corny nostalgia of songs like "Penny Lane" and "Your Mother Should Know." This time, it's done with the benefit of actual age and hard-won wisdom.
McCartney recorded the album over a span of three and a half years with co-producer David Kahne (the Bangles, Tony Bennett, the Strokes), and it's an amalgam of the raw and the cooked — plenty of fuzz and home-brewed performances, and yet meticulously crafted, with stacked vocal harmonies, sophisticated string arrangements, impeccable musicianship. And that's all great, but the wonderful thing about it is, McCartney actually has something to say. For years, the billionaire rock icon, blissfully wedded to the love of his life, seemed so insular and indulged that there was little grist for his songwriting mill. But the events of the past ten years have left him well gristed — he's also working hard to curtail his hankering for the mawkish and the treacly. Not coincidentally, he's made much more spontaneous, creative and compelling music ever since 1997's Flaming Pie, made as his beloved wife Linda was dying of cancer.
Opener "Dance Tonight" is a folksy stomp, an invitation to a party delivered in prototypical dance-music terms (“Everybody gonna dance tonight / Everybody gonna feel all right"), and yet it comes off wistful, almost melancholic, and it's not just because of the minor key or the mandolins — it's actually a bit of foreshadowing, and later on we'll learn the implications of partying at Paul's place. It's really "Ever Present Past" that sets the theme: In search of lost time. "I hope it isn't too late/ searching for the time that has gone so fast/ The time that I thought would last," McCartney sings, still preternaturally boyish. The synthetic hurdy-gurdy feeling of the track reminds of XTC's 1989 Oranges and Lemons while the keening one-note guitar lick recalls Guided by Voices; then again, both of those bands can sound an awful lot like… Paul McCartney.
The album's long gestation would probably explain why there are both love songs and break-up songs here. The gospel-flavored "Gratitude," with McCartney in full-on soul singer mode over resounding piano chords and a deliberate Ringo-esque chug, would seem to be about Heather Mills: "I was living with a memory," he testifies, "But my cold and lonely nights ended when you sheltered me." (Then again, the song seems to be as much about McCartney simply savoring singing the word "gratitude.") Likewise, there's "See Your Sunshine," an unlikely love song to sing, much less write, in the midst of such a toxic clash; it's a bit saccharine, but hats off to him for keeping it on the album (even if a cynic might presume it a calculated act of spin control or a way of mollifying a legal adversary). But then there's "You Tell Me," a ballad recalling idyllic days gone by in a series of questions like "When was that summer when the skies were blue/ The bright red cardinal flew down from his tree," each ending with a withering "You tell me." Conveyed with the sweetest bitterness, it packs all the emotional whiplash of having something very good turn terribly sour, and it's kind of devastating.
McCartney gets back to contemplating mortality in a suite of songs (sound familiar?) near the end of the album. "Vintage Clothes" offers seemingly contradictory advice: "What went out is coming back/ Don't live in the past, don't hold on to something that's changing fast" and the arrangement, channel-changing from Carole King-like pop to haunting, jazzy clutter to an ELO-like middle eight follows the advice. The straightforwardly autobiographical "That Was Me" rocks an irresistibly jaunty swing, summoning up scenes from boyhood ("at the Scout camp, in the school play") and beyond ("Merseybeatin 'with the band"). It really nails that feeling when, once you've lived long enough, you begin to have the strange sensation of looking back on your youth and feeling as if that was a different person, even though life is a seamless continuum. For McCartney, it's the odd, probably mindblowing, realization that that overachieving moptop was "the same me that stands here now." Of course, McCartney's life is truly phenomenal, but he makes being a Beatle into a good for metaphor for any life lived, painted in with achievements and experiences.
"The End of the End" specifies how his memorial should be conducted — with jokes, stories and music — and that he'll be going to a "much better place — no reason to cry." It's about as maudlin as it gets here, and yet it's absolutely moving, watching McCartney put on his brave face. There's a little whistling solo, but is he whistling for joy or whistling in the dark?
Strangely, it doesn't end there, on that natural note of finality. With its steady eighth-note piano pulse and offbeat guitar skronks, aptly titled rocker "Nod Your Head" sounds like Sir Paul has been grooving on Spoon's Gimme Fiction, but then it's off to a stomping, "Kashmir"-like groove and squalling, dissonant guitars. As a coda, it's on a par with jarring non sequiturs like "Her Majesty" from Abbey Road or the infamous run-out groove of Sgt. Pepper.
McCartney has dodged the question, but "memory almost full" happens to be an anagram for "for my soulmate LLM," or Linda Louise McCartney, an almost unbearably poignant fact. It also may be the only real reference to the turmoil surrounding his divorce; "memory almost full" means you have to delete something you don't need so you can keep functioning — or maybe it's that he feels he's reached the point in life where memories are no longer created, only reviewed.
What's coming around the bend? What's it going to be like when it gets here? We look to friends and loved ones for clues, but we also look to artists. Countless others have reflected on life, loss and mortality since time immemorial, but Paul McCartney is on the cutting edge of exploring it on behalf of baby boomers (and the ensuing generation that perpetually gets caught in their massive slipstream), a group of people famously loathe to acknowledge their own middle age, much less senior citizenship. Memory Almost Full is not as deep as Dylan's Time out of Mind, but it's a hundred times as catchy. Even better, it follows an important rule: write about what you know. And what Paul McCartney knows now is something we'll all find out for ourselves later, so pay heed.
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