No one who reads this blog will be surprised by my confessing that I'm a fan of Paul McCartney.I went on to enumerate some of the releases of McCartney's solo career which I classified as anywhere from great to horrible. He's had a few duds and he's had LPs that were only saved by a few flashes of brilliance. Yet, overall, his solo output has been fantastic, the past disclaimers of the rock and roll intelligentsia notwithstanding.
But you probably also know that I'm far from an uncritical fan...
I'm not alone in that assessment. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan called McCartney's solo output "awesome." My twenty-two year old daughter recently informed me that among the young people with whom she works, Macca has suddenly become hip again. But is the new outbreak of Maccamania warranted?
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, I believed then, was the best LP of McCartney's solo career, an uncommonly even and uniformly interesting collection of songs which was rightly nominated for the Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
It was widely believed that the former Beatle's teaming with young producer Nigel Godrich, who had the temerity to tell the star that he hadn't liked the way McCartney initially played the song, How Kind of You, had challenged McCartney in ways that had only previously happened with the other three Beatles and their producer, George Martin. McCartney even said that working with Godrich was like being in a band again.
As McCartney looked to complete an LP which he actually started before connecting with Godrich, he entered a period like those that have been artistically dangerous for him in the past. Often, spurred by successes and his innate desire to please, McCartney has followed good records with ill-advised ones.
On top of that, McCartney, who has no small ego, may have felt a twinge of resentment for the credit given to Godrich for Chaos. He most likely felt that he had something to prove.
But, in spite of all the danger, Memory Almost Full is a very fine LP. It's not on a par with Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which sets a very high standard. But Memory Almost Full is a very good LP, a collection of solid and interesting songs.
For the most part, McCartney's lyrics here display the same clarity he achieved in the previous collection.
But it's the music and the arrangements that truly stun the listener of Memory Almost Full. While McCartney's voice continues a decline that has been noticeable for several years now, it's still a more than serviceable instrument, one which he sometimes uses in surprisingly soulful ways.
Thematically, as with his 1989 release, Flowers in the Dirt, McCartney is contemplating his own mortality (The End of the End). He's also looking back incredulously on a life that no one could have imagined his living back when he was born in Liverpool on June 18, 1942 (Ever Present Past, That Was Me, Vintage Clothes). In the former song, McCartney also insists that even if we wear the old stuff, we need to keep looking forward. That's been a McCartney trademark, artistically and in his life. Unlike musicians less than half his age, McCartney is still capable of surprising us musically. And he manages to do that numerous times on Memory Almost Full.
There are some good rockers on this release, too. I think especially of Only Mama Knows, which is preceded and closed with a lucious string arrangement, and the silly but infectious, Nod Your Head, which closes out the set.
Two songs will be readily identified as McCartneyesque, the LP's first two tracks, Dance Tonight and Ever Present Past. As likable as the two tunes are, I think that they were poor choices for being highlighted as singles in the UK and US, respectively, as they have been. For the first single, I would have chosen either That Was Me, a jazzy autobiographical number I really love, or Only Mama Knows. Both are likely to make non-McCartney fans stand up and take notice.
Maybe the most interesting song on the album is Mr. Bellamy. With its narrative, it reminds the listener of such Macca classics as Eleanor Rigby and Paperback Writer. McCartney describes it as a kind of opera. Punctuated by a staccato piano, intriguing percussion, a clarinet solo, and a clipped French horn, McCartney tells the story of a man who refuses to come down off of a roof, his therapist, and the firefighters down on the street who want to rescue him. McCartney voices the firefighters' part in his best bass: "Steady, lads/Easy does it." McCartney's father was a volunteer firefighter. So, armchair therapists can have a field day, if they want. (Such efforts are notoriously difficult when speaking of a McCartney song, which are rarely directly autobiographical.)
Of further special interest is Gratitude, a soulful ballad in which McCartney proclaims his thanks to a lover with these intriguing words in its bridge:
I should stop loving youGiven McCartney's divorce from Heather Mills, the amateur therapists will have still more to ponder and yammer about with this one.
Think what you put me through
But I don't want to lock my heart away
I will look forward to
Days when I'll be loving you
Until then, gonna wish and hope and pray...
Another highlight of Memory Almost Full is its medley that begins with Vintage Clothes.
In an interview clip on his web site, McCartney claims that this is the first time he's tacked together tunes in medley form since Abbey Road. That may prove that his memory is almost full because medley-construction is something he's done both within songs (think, Picasso's Last Words and Uncle Albert and Admiral Halsey) and on LPs (think, Band on the Run and Red Rose Speedway) several times through his solo career. This effort isn't comparable to his best medleys, although the lyrics are thematically linked and the individual songs are good.
In summary, McCartney avoided the artistic dangers to which he's in the past succumbed and produced a really fine LP. If Chaos and Creation was an A+, this one is an A. I recommend Memory Almost Full.
[UPDATE, 07-02-07: On repeated listenings to Memory Almost Full, I find myself falling in love with it more and more. It's an aural feast and in a way, the most compellingly personal LP of his solo career.]