Well that was meThere will come a time -- distressingly soon, I have a feeling -- that the only Beatle who isn't dead is Paul McCartney. I don't say this because I have some inside track on the state of Ringo Starr's health -- I fondly wish him a long and happy existence -- but because the Gods of Irony work that way.
On the river
With the band
That was me
June 18th will be Sir Paul's 65th birthday -- meaning (among other things) that his new solo album, Memory Almost Full, will have been written and recorded at that once unimaginably far-off age of 64. Far from having rented a cottage in the Isle of Wight (if it's not too dear), McCartney's last decade has been noteworthy for tumult and chaos. Of the record's title, he says,
The album title came after I had finished everything. For me, that’s when they normally come, with the exception of maybe Sgt. Peppers, otherwise I don’t think I have ever made an album with The Beatles, Wings or solo where I have thought of a title and a concept. I was thinking about what would sum the whole thing up and ‘Memory Almost Full’ sprung to mind. It’s a phrase that seemed to embrace modern life; in modern life our brains can get a bit overloaded.
A title like Memory Almost Full might lead one to expect a meditation on age and death, and that is exactly what Paul has delivered. The first single, "Dance Tonight," is a bit of inconsequential fluff, pleasantly buoyed by a jaunty mandolin and a dry kick drum pulse, dedicated to a proposition no more complex than the fact that "everybody's gonna feel all right tonight." As a single record, it's charming enough -- but as the lead-in track to this record, its effect is deeply ironic: Oh, no -- by the end of this record you will have felt nearly everything but "all right."
No: Check that. It is not a depressing album -- one could really never accuse McCartney of trying to bum out his audience. What it is is a record by a man who has led an astonishingly full life, who knows he's not immortal, and who faces his inevitable demise with clear-eyed honesty. It's the artist's fate ever to express in public what we all feel privately. This is a grave responsibility, and McCartney's always been at his best when he takes it seriously. He has, of course, disappointed us by disappearing into boater-and-cane cotton-candy crap for most of his post-Beatles career, but, as he pointed out in the Anthology series, he has no regrets about the fact that the Beatles were almost never negative, that their message was always to "take a sad song and make it better." (There is, of course, no better example of this than the transcendently life-affirming "Hey Jude.")
The second single, also the second track on Memory Almost Full, is a more accurate harbinger of what is to follow. A midtempo rocker that displays a typically angular and vertical McCartney melody, full of those jumps and intervals that fit his voice so well, its subject matter is the confusion that overwhelms the aging and overfilled mind (I believe it's this theme that inspired the album's title):
There's far too much on my plateThe third track, "See Your Sunshine," is the only throwaway track on a record remarkable for its thematic consistency -- the verse "They want to see you in the front line," seeming to make the song a love-ditty to the departed Linda (who typically occupied the back line in Wings' stage set), and perhaps a kiss-off to the departed-in-a-different-sense Heather Mills.
Don't have no time to be a decent lover
I hope it's never too late
Searching for the time that has gone so fast
The time that I thought would last
My ever present past
It is with the fourth track, "Only Mama Knows," that things begin to get dark and interesting. Much of the rest of the album is crossfaded, one song into another, and we are clearly being asked to consider the songs from this point on as a suite. Beginning with a theme-statement in the form of an insistent little orchestral passage, all chromatic cellos and two-note police-siren violins, "Mama," concerned with a child's rage at parental abandonment, explodes into harder rocking than anything I've heard from McCartney since Band on the Run.
The little orchestral passage returns, leading us into "You Tell Me," a truly haunting meditation on memory:
When was that summer when it never rained?More orchestral link-music, and we're into "Mr. Bellamy," at which point I'm tempted to invoke a comparison I don't throw around lightly: Brian Wilson. While clearly a McCartney song, "Bellamy" is itself a mini-suite of disparate parts, rather in the "Band on the Run" vein, with a staccato piano figure that would not be out of place on a Cat Stevens record, a broad tonal palette that includes clarinet, violins, clavinet, and brief electric guitar stabs. The lyric concerns itself with a cheerful lunatic who refuses entreaties to descend from a tree: "I like it up here!"
The air was buzzing with the sweet old honey bee
You tell me
Were we there? Was it real?
Is it truly how I feel
You tell me
"Gratitude" follows, a slightly sad testimonial to the effects of time on one of the great rock-and-roll voices -- he tries to get that "I'm Down" roar into his voice, and I'm afraid he falls just short. It's followed by "Vintage Clothes": "What we are is what we are/And what we wear is vintage clothes," but, as those of us who have lived through a fashion cycle or two know only too well, "What went out is coming back."
Perhaps the most touching song on the record is "That Was Me," a look back over his childhood, his adolescence, his mindboggling fame, with the astonished thought, "That was me!" It can't be easy to have been Beatle Paul McCartney without let or hindrance for some 50 years without some coping method, some mechanism to shut oneself off from oneself, and here we see him reconnecting with the parts of himself that he shut out: "And when I think that all this stuff/Can make a life/It's pretty hard to take it in!" The song, despite its melancholy theme, is actually quite a fine rocker, with his voice rather more successfully roughened to his Little Richard tone.
We carry on through the acoustic "Feet in the Clouds" and the portentous "House of Wax," (a particularly nicely reverberant recording) to "The End of the End." You will no doubt remember the sighing, relieved last line of "The Long One" on Abbey Road ("And in the end..."), and the title of this tune clearly refers to it:
On the day that I dieYou see? The love you take is equal to the love you make.*
I'd like jokes to be told
And stories of old
To be rolled out like carpets
That children have played on
And laid on while listening
To stories of old
*I once recorded a parody song that ended,
And in the endTrust me, it was hysterical.
The cheese you eat
Is equal to the cheese