Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Paul Is Not Dead

(Crossposted at Nude Critics)

Memory Almost Full Cover
Well that was me
Royal Iris
On the river
With the band
That was me
There 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.

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.

MaccaA 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 plate
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

The 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.

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?
The air was buzzing with the sweet old honey bee
Let’'s see
You tell me

Were we there? Was it real?
Is it truly how I feel
You tell me
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!"

"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 die
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
You see? The love you take is equal to the love you make.*

*I once recorded a parody song that ended,
And in the end
The cheese you eat
Is equal to the cheese
You excrete

Trust me, it was hysterical.


Bobby Lightfoot said...

Cool, man. That's shredderific. I wish we coul lose just *one* Fall Out Boy before Rings cashes in.

Um, isn't the picture interesting? It's elegant. When I Gooble it I get a Magritte-ish chair without th' page turning thing. I guess this is the back cover? I'm sure I won't be spouting on anything you haven't thought about if I mention the picture is based on a page that turns to blackness.


Anonymous said...

Let's talk about graphic design for a second.

I like the black, white and pink. But, I think "memory almost full" is too big. And what is that font? Berkeley? I don't know about that. And it should've been kerned tighter.

And it bugs me that the folded down corner of the page is running in the middle of the type.

I keep trying to see it differently, but I think it missed the mark.

Neddie said...

The turned-down corner is a weird little thing. When you buy the CD (I got mine at Starbucks -- the record's on the Starbucks' in-house label), the insert wasn't folded, but it's scored for folding.

When you visit the Memory Almost Full website, they give you instructions on how to fold your own copy -- a fairly risible bit of schlocky "audience inclusion" gimmickry thought up by who-knows-who. It sure isn't, you know, Art, the way the little cutout mustaches and military paraphernalia that came with the first few pressings of the Sgt. Pepper album were.

Let's talk about Web design for a second, GB. The entire goddamned MAF site is an enormous Flash gewgaw, which separates you from your Back button. Navigating to certain portions of it sends you into silos, in which the navigation schema changes. This means that (for example) if you go down into News, suddenly there's no way to get from where you are to (say) Lyrics. The only way I could figure out how to surmount this obstacle was to reload the whole thing. This is the sort of fundamental thing that would get me fired. Somebody charged Sir Paul a who-ho-hole lotta money for that site, and it's got flaws and violations of open standards that a first-year student of user-interface design learns not to commit.

Plus, the Flash thing doesn't let you deep-link into it -- so, for example, I couldn't link to Paul's little essay about the origins of the album's title. Ain't that just profoundly dumb?

Anonymous said...

the Flash thing doesn't let you deep-link into it

I know! You haven't been to blue girl's pad today. Obviously, you haven't read the post you inspired.


I linked to the lyrics of The End of the End -- at The End of My Post -- and it's not "deep linked" as you say.

the insert wasn't folded, but it's scored for folding.

Side note: I love scoring paper. I've got a thing about it. Those deep creases? They're cool!

I can see how having someone tell you *how* to fold it might be a little much.

Marketing people. Sheesh.

My job is on my nerves.

Jeddie! Email them. Tell them you'll fix the site. Get in, dude! Do it! Hey, you never know.

Watson got Pete Townshend to talk to us.

Maybe it'll work.


Neddie said...

I know! You haven't been to blue girl's pad today. Obviously, you haven't read the post you inspired.

Oh, but I did! (One does pay somewhat over-obsessive attention to one's traffic.) I hovered over your link, saw the link to the "Lyrics" portion of Paul's site, and felt vindicated, actually.

Jeddie! Email them. Tell them you'll fix the site. Get in, dude! Do it! Hey, you never know.

Oh, but I do know, GB. It's a one-way ticket to hip but profoundly unflattering eyewear, black clothing and ill-considered tattoos. Trust me on this one: I would rather sacrifice a testicle than get sucked into that world.

I've just started designing a rather groundbreaking interface, based on Windoze Vista's ability to link to a TV set, that has promising and rather fun implications. I'm in a good place. I don't need to please rock stars' need for shit to twinkle when moused over.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

So let me get this straight- you buy your copy of th' cd and there's instructions on how to bend down the corner?

The idea of being "kerned tighter" is a little eeh to me. I have images of being thrown into a bog. Who wants to be tossed in a bog? Hands?