Monday, 31 August 2015
Dance Tonight/Ever Present Past/See Your Sunshine/Only Mama Knows/You Tell Me/Mr Bellamy/Gratitude/Vintage Clothes/That Was Me/Feet In The Clouds/House Of Wax/The End Of The End/Nod Your Head
"I think of everything to be discovered - I hope there's something to find"
Back in 1967 a twenty-five-year-old Paul McCartney, at the height of his creative powers and arguably the hippest young man on the planet was doing the most un-hip thing imaginable: wondering what his life might be like he grew old. Encouraged by the warm reception to the song about a lonely old widow in Eleanor Rigby the year before, Macca had spent much of late 1966 and 1967 openly discussing age. 'Sgt Peppers' starts with off with the line that 'it was twenty years ago today' as if it's the single biggest possible number he and his peers can contemplate (it was for him, after all, nearly a lifetime at this point in his life), goes on to look back on childhood memories of school as if they belong to a completely alien forgotten world of distant memory (the Macca bits of 'A Day In The Life') and includes 'When I'm 64', a wry look at near-retirement age actually started as a joke when Paul was fifteen but returned to with extra fascination now that an older McCartney began to realise that he might actually reach that impossible-sounding age one day. Sadly Macca seems to have then largely passed on his ideas of 'old age' and won't write another 'oldie/memory' song until 'Footprints' in 1986, the yin to Eleanor Rigby's 'yang'. It seemed that life for a young hip rock star was simply too interesting and too full to live anywhere but the present, this fascinating element of Macca's work being neatly side-stepped for nearly forty years.
Suddenly in 2006 Paul really did turn sixty-four for real and judging by the lyrics on this album it was a shock for a whole host of reasons. The time that had seemed to move so slowly in his twenties had sped up to ridiculous speeds and been filled up with so many life experiences that far from seeming like some lost forgotten world long distant his Beatle-days seemed tantalisingly close to the present, just slightly out of reach rather than alien. Old age was also far from a time for slowing down either as heard on 'When I'm 64' with its dream of holidays and sunshine and relatives - the mid-2000s was a particularly busy period for Paul who threw himself into both pop and classical albums and spend an even larger amount of time than normal campaigning, whilst simultaneously fiddling around with intended second animated feature 'Tropic Island Hum' (which became an over-long music video but an all too-brief cartoon given away on a DVD and a book, published as 'High In The Clouds' in October 2005 mere months before this album). The jokey 'old armchair' on the album cover (a nod of the head, surely, to 'When I'm 64' even if he's never admitted as much) is a pointed comment: Paul must have never had time to sit in the cosy seat he'd once planned out for himself. This was far from the restful days Paul had once jovially imagined for his future, originally based on his dad's own experiences at a similar age when ill health was slowing him down and his twenty-five year-old self would probably have been shocked that Paul was back in Abbey Road making his 19th album since leaving The Beatles, in a genre where no one had yet managed a successful career past thirty. However there was another reason his future hadn't quite turned out the way he'd planned it - Paul had found his soulmate to share his holidays to the Isle of Wight and scrimp and save with (even if the Isle of Wight had turned into the Isle of Mull and the scrimping and saving became a 'moral' issue rather than a financial one) every bit as he'd carefully planned out in his song (recorded, funnily enough, weeks after meeting future wife Linda Eastman for the first time, even if he'd begun the song as a schoolboy) but life had got in the way and things had gone wrong, with Linda no longer by his side the way he'd once hoped. At 64 Paul didn't even have Heather Mills anymore, their brief but fiery relationship having come undone officially right at this milestone age, with an official divorce taking place two years later. The character in 'When I'm 64' was also very much in the grandkid stage of life - Paul was too after the birth of grandsons Arthur Donald in 1999 and Elliott Donald in 2002 (both to daughter Mary) and new arrival Miller Willis (born to daughter Stella in 2005). However he was also a new father himself, with the birth of his and Heather's baby Beatrice in 2003 - born right between her uncles' birthdates - and the nappy changing toddler stage of both children and grandchildren at the same time must have seemed so right and yet so wrong with how he imagined life at sixty-four.
As usual when things get tough in his personal life, Paul's sub-conscious shuts up shop and you won't get much sense of the drama unfolding around Paul in this record (that's in the next record 'Electric Arguments') which is a shame in many ways (Lennon would have got a 'Walls and Bridges' style concept confessional out of the whole Heather Mills affair, but then Paul isn't John - one of their few differences being their approach to their personal and private lives). However what you do get overwhelmingly is a sense of things being at once so right and yet so wrong, of a planned future that's in so many ways so overwhelmingly better than expected (who'd have guessed in 1967 that Paul would still be recording this well this often in 2006?) and in other ways much much worse. Part of the record has Macca looking back on his pre-Beatle days in disbelief ('That Was Me'), thanking the powers that be for his amazing life ('Gratitude') and rather sweetly telling fans and those who loves him that he's had a wonderful life and can march on into his twilight years perfectly happily, with all the boxes ticked and a life well lived, his inevitable funeral full of songs and jokes and spirit rather than the sad and lonely death he once feared in 'Eleanor Rigby'. And yet at other places Paul seems to grimly holding on by the skin of his teeth: 'House Of Wax' is one of his all-time saddest songs, with a career of belief and love and joy falling around him while he's powerless to do anything except tell us that his life is suddenly 'very very very very very hard'. Other songs too hint at defiance and an upset aggression that's unusual for Macca: 'Me Bellamy' turns all the annoyance and frustration and anger Paul has ever felt into one imaginary bureaucratic character - the 21st century incarnation of the pompous war veterans on the 'A Hard Day's Night' train, still looking down their noses at him after all he's achieved. 'Vintage Clothes' looks on with half-amusement half-spite as youngsters dismiss him and his type for not being 'cool' whole oblivious that half of their wardrobe is pinched from his own generation. 'Only Mama Knows' may be a character song - a tale of a man abandoned at an airport as a baby and coming to terms with not knowing the full story (which sounds suspiciously similar to John Lennon's in many ways but has nothing whatsoever in common with Paul's own life) - and yet the sense of abandonment sounds 'real' in way that previous whimsical songs like 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' and 'Uncle Albert' never could. Paul simultaneously seems to be grateful for how the majority of his life turned out and ungrateful for how his current situation seems to be, with his records ignored and low-selling even to his own long-term fans and a marital debacle that left him seeming foolish to the press (who never liked Heather) and his own family (ditto). In many ways this record is about 'My Ever Present Present' - the past is escapism on this record for the most part, a memory of a time when Paul was loved by the world in general and one woman in particular; perhaps it should have been titled 'When I was 25'?!
This could have gone oh so wrong. There have been too many AAA albums reviewed recently that spent precious time discussing some petty grievances from times long past and yet how much worse life is in the modern era. This record even sounds at time like one of them, with the rather ill-fitting 'Vintage Clothes' ticking us off by saying 'Don't live in the past' even though the album does precious little else. However this record avoids most of those traps. The jokey title 'Memory Almost Full' is clever, taking into account the very retro and yet very modern contrast of this album which as usual with McCartney's solo work mines every contemporary production cliché going and yet still turns out unmistakably 'him' with its take on old age and full banks but with a very modern phrase. Though this album is as 'escapist' as they come and even more unhelpfully unrevealing than most McCartney records, it's not as 'empty' as other Macca records from the most painful periods in his life when records are made through auto-pilot rather than inspiration ('Flaming Pie' written when Linda was dying and 'Chaos and Creation' in 2003 when the Heather Mills affair was first going wrong). The much-discussed 'closing trilogy' (actually a suite of four songs towards the end, with the noisy song of frustration 'Nod Your Head' to finish) about Paul's memories and reaction to growing older was seized upon as his best work in years - it isn't quite (though 'House Of Wax' is his best song in six years) and 'That Was Me' from earlier in the album is actually a better take on the same idea than three of these songs, which are a little too self-aware and one-layered (certainly compared to what Paul's younger 25-year-old self might have written). No matter though: Paul is at least trying on these songs - largely successfully - and it's hard for anyone whose shared that forty-five year journey with him up to this stage not to shed a tear at the thought of our hero not being here one day, of the 'old stories' being told by us 'children' at the foot of our master-storyteller as he pre-warns us to be brave (though people think of McCartney as a 'light' writer he's often at his beat writing about the bigger subjects, especially death: 'Eleanor Rigby' 'Footprints' and 'This One' are all amongst his best work with only 'Little Willow' letting the side down). No, you won't learn what it really feels like to be sixty-four across this album (Paul doesn't seem to quite know himself, but then his 64th year probably wasn't like most other people's) and there's certainly nothing more about McCartney that you won't have already learnt from his previous albums, but it's heartfelt this time (a major plus after 'Chaos and Creation') and full of just enough character and pathos to get through. You sense his 25-year-old self would have been decently impressed at the second half of this album and bits and pieces from the first, which makes no bones about being old and yet does so in such a way that goes head-to-head with the youngsters moving into The Beatles spot as the nation's darlings (even the fact that this was the first ever McCartney mainstream record not to be released by some variation of EMI - and by a coffee-chain of all things! - shows modern commercial daring; well of a sort given that Starbucks are about the least hip modern brand around and - much like their coffees actually - their record releases to date have all promised from the outside much but turned out to be mainly froth and way too pricey for what they are; have you seen the Lennon compilation they've got out? Shoddy! However most fans got o hear this album first as part of an ill-fated short-lived craze of giving full albums away free with papers, spare copies of which were clogging up charity shops for months to come; Macca's old rivals Brian Wilson and Ray Davies did the same around this time, with similarly mixed success).
However, unfortunately the drippier 'McCartney' aspects of 'When I'm 64' seem to have informed major parts of this album's creation too. There have always been those odd lines that crop up in a McCartney album that make you cringe because of their gauchness or stupidity or both - sometimes if you're unlucky there'll be whole songs that suffer from this. 'Memory Almost Full' suffers from this problem more than most: 'Dance Tonight' is by far the poorest lead-off single Paul has ever released, as trite and empty as anything in his back catalogue and a song that put off so many people unnecessarily who might have actually liked this slightly deeper, darker album whether they heard it as a single or as the bizarre out-of-sequence first track (yes the story about writing it at an instrument shop and his toddler daughter dancing to it and claiming it her 'favourite' is sweet, but toddler's are looking for different things in songs to enjoy than most music fans and Macca traditionally doesn't do well when asking for his offspring for advice - see Wings single 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' if you feel brave enough). 'Mr Bellamy' is one of 'those' McCartney songs - you know the sort, the 'character' songs with quirky people doing quirky things to a quirky tune that would have had John Lennon or Elvis Costello growling and reaching for the red pen; 'Feet In The Clouds' includes some of all the all-time crass singalong McCartney words: 'My hidden treasure, made to measure, for my pleasure' is the tip of a particularly slippery iceberg waiting to sink what should be a truly lovely track; 'Nod Your Head' is a far more interesting song to read than it is to listen to, a quasi-punk song that - like 'Boil Crisis' and the 'Back To The Egg' album before it - is dad rock (make that grandad rock), someone who genuinely thinks they're down with the kids and doing what they do for the same reasons and coming up woefully short. Even the best songs on this album are marred by mistakes, dodgy word rhymings and curious decisions that make what should be great songs coming out sounding average sound like great songs with bad bits stuck to them, like the perfect mash potato suddenly containing lumps in it (talking of which, perhaps the ultimate example of Paul's 64th birthday year is the weird 'cookery' section he uploaded to his website where he teaches us how to make the perfect potato dish - which is probably also something he wasn't expecting to be doing forty years earlier when he wrote 'When I'm 64'!) 'Ever Present Past' rhymes 'late' with 'plate'; Macca's already overused the rhyme of 'glad with 'bad' for a whole song in 1983 and charming as 'So Bad' was 'See Your Sunshine' doesn't have the same excuse of innocence and sweetness to get it by; 'You Tell Me' comes oh so close to being a genuine nostalgic lookback a la Ray Davies with a sense of past memories that surely couldn't be as great as they were, but sacrifices it's nugget of heartfelt wistfulness for cliché and filler; 'Don't Live In The Past' gets a black mark from the opening couplet 'don't live in the past, don't live on to something that's changing so fast' (an easy rhyme and a line that doesn't scan in one!); Vintage Rack's 'A little more, a little tall, check the rack - what was out is coming back!' sung with curious emphasis and glee a line that excruciating truly doesn't deserve!; the inevitable 'by the sea' that appears like clockwork in 'That Was Me'. If this was a new writer I'd be frowning - someone with that much history, that much 'ever present past' - really should have got past these clunky mistakes by now and oddly even though there's less 'mistakes' here than on 'Chaos and Creation' they're harder to forgive because they crop up on such promising songs. We've often said on this site that Paul is at his best working with a collaborator where his worst ideas tend to get knocked out - here that's truer than ever (so an even bigger round of applause to his next collaborator 'Youth'...)
Unfortunately these lapses mean that even many of the best songs quite come alive and no album containing 'Dance Tonight' - where Paul's multi-layered multi-directional creativity becomes its dullest one-dimensional thud - can ever be a 'classic'. However these are molehills on a mountain that's actually larger and more luscious than Paul had made in quite a time. The lighter songs like 'That Was Me' and 'Ever Present Past' cover a lot of ground for twinkling three minute pop songs, while the deeper songs are much more deserving of Paul's reputation and talent than most of his modern compositions, stretching his palette again after some twenty years of playing safe and consolidating past territories (in the pop world at least - it's the classical stuff that gets 'daring', some of the time anyway). 'The House Of Wax' is an atmospheric haiku, full of poetic fragments and imagery that sees a future of suffering about to be lit by a fuse the narrator is powerless to stop; if Yoko ever decides to make a second collaboration with her ex's 'previous partner' (see 1990's 'Hiroshima Sky Is Always Blue' - if you can find it!) I pray it sounds like this and people can stop jumping on the backs of both of them. 'Mr Bellamy' may annoy the heck out of me, but I'd rather Macca was annoying me with an off-the-wall rule-breaking structured song like this one (with a lyric about rebellion that's a perfect fit) than with a recycled hack song like 'Dance Tonight'. 'Only Mama Knows' may not tell Macca's story exactly, but he's always been a good study for empathy and sympathy and really 'gets' his abandoned character (plus it's unusual for his down-trodden persona to be a male for once - usually it's downtrodden rising-above-it females when Macca tries this sort of thing, from 'Lady Madonna' to 'Another Day'). 'Ever Present Past' may not live up to its title or opening line (a weary sigh of 'I've got too much on my plate') but is a step in the right direction. The 'memory quartet' (which isn't most people's idea of the 'memory quintet' by the way - for me it's 'Ever Present Past' 'You Tell Me' 'That Was Me' 'Feet In The Clouds' and 'The End Of The End' that share the same theme, with 'Vintage Clothes' as a sort of snarky counter-attack) is also a staggeringly perfect idea for a writer whose seen so much and shared so much of that with us, a reflection on past, present and future that gets more right than it gets wrong and is genuinely moving more often than its clunky. 'End' especially gets the tone just right, Paul plotting the perfect funeral that so many of his friends and loved ones like Lennon and Linda never had a chance to plan because they died too young and it's typically down-to-earth yet still ever so slightly pompous (the deluxe edition of the album includes a not-that-revealing audio interview where Paul adds 'I thought I'd like jokes, a wake, music, rather than everyone sitting around feeling glum and saying 'what a great guy he was' - although I'd quite like a bit of that too!) 'That Was Me' gets by on laughs, though this list of memories that lead right up to the 'People and Places' TV show of the fab four at the Cavern in 1962 ('Sweating cobwebs, in a cellar, on TV') also has the depth and width of being an equally moving song had Paul chose to do it that way. 'You Tell Me' and 'Clouds' are the two that really got away, both songs starting out as moments of heartfelt poignancy ('When was that summer when skies were blue?' and 'The teacher said I always had my head in the clouds' respectively) before becoming mere cliché and shared memories not different enough to care about. A shame, because the former, with its gloomy melody and overhanging clouds (not unlike 'Summer's Day Song' from 'McCartney II') and 'Clouds' with its ha-ha-look-at-me-now teacher-baiting nicked from 'Getting Better' both feel as if they should be better, deeper songs than this, as if Paul started writing from the heart but got bored and finished these songs off writing from the head.
A typically mixed bag of McCartney then, with more interesting places to go than 'Chaos' but a shorter journey through these interesting doors than 'Driving Rain', the other McCartney albums of the decade. However, 'Full's trump hand over both albums comes from the performance and production. Compared to both albums there's a swing in Paul's voice, a very audible passion to be in the studio making this stuff rather than simply filling in time again that surprised many (usually when Paul's distracted it shows in his performances as much as his songs - suggesting 2006, when the Heather split had been finalised, was a much happier year than the precarious 2005; Paul's always been good at moving on from bad times at speed and reading between the lines may have already been dating third wife Nancy Shovell, a family McCartney friend dating back to at least the 1990s). There's a glorious moment on 'That Was Me' where Paul, spontaneously moved by his own memories into a yelled grin, like a naughty schoolboy given the biggest sweet-shop to play with, suddenly bursts into pure passion and energy; though we've heard him this passionate with anger recently he hasn't sounded this madly happy since, ooh, 'Stranglehold' in 1986.
However it's not all down to Paul - his still un-named backing band are easily the best set of players he's had since the 'middle' Wings partnership of 1975-78. The band had been together six years by now and whilst they'd played cameos on other McCartney albums (the band formed during sessions for 'Driving Rain' in fact before old partner Wix got added to the mix!) this is the first and - to date - still the only album that features them more or less all the way through. Unlike the less stable eras of Wings the band really 'nail' that distinctive McCartney sound - and yet unlike the 80s/90s band (also un-named) they don't restrict themselves to it lavishly. There are many guitar solos, vocal harmonies, mellotron licks distinctive bass and drum parts on this record that sound just so instantly McCartney in a way that he only has recently on songs that are direct and pointless sequels (Blackbird's ugly much younger sister 'Jennry Wren' for instance). The trick comes from giving us combinations of old recognisable sounds we've not heard in new settings before and the sound and textures of this album is a delight for the long-term Macca collector: 'That Was Me' for instance, features the Beach Boysy scat singing from 'Dear Boy' of 1971, with the bass riff from 'Name and Address' in 1978 and the modern grungy sound of 'Driving Rain' whilst 'See Your Sunshine' combines the 80s powerpop vocals of the 'Tug Of War/Pipes Of Peace' period with the 80s technology of 'McCartney II' and a fully exploratory bassline straight out of 'Sgt Peppers'). My favourite production moment though is the unexpected false ending to 'Mr Bellamy', which mixes Brian Wilson 'smile' with Macca's own Ram big-band remake 'Thrillington' and simply revels in the song for a further minute despite having nothing left to say - something Paul hasn't done since the Wings days. Macca has finally found the perfect balance: Wings could never have worked as a democratic band when one member's fame and output eclipsed the others' so (see 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' for the best evidence why) and yet the autocratic note-for-note reproduction arrangements on the 1989 and 1993 tours robbed the later band(s) of their fuller potential. This is perfect, Paul as the head poncho whose still welcoming to new ideas (hence the return of the old days' jokey sleevenotes: 'His Royal Highness The King of Cosmania and Surrounding Regions deigns to give his thanks to the following people...' It couldn't have been more Wings-like if it had been signed by 'Clint Harrigan'!) The worst songs on this album, typically, are the ones Macca did alone: 'Dance Tonight' 'Mr Bellamy' 'Gratitude' and 'Nod Your Head'. The production too turns a patchy album into a classy one, a record which unlike most AAA 21st century albums ('Chaos' included) probably won't sound dated and of-it's-time in thirty years (the way that 'Pipes Of Peace' and 'Press To Play' now very much do, however great passages of both albums are).
Most producers take one look at McCartney and give in or at least try to make him sound the way he's always sounded, but producer David Kahne is a better find than most, adding suitable modern tricks that really enhance the form and style without getting in the way of the song or doing something Macca wouldn't have done years before had the technology been available (the return of the wine-glasses, synthetically this time, at the start of 'You Tell Me'; the woolly digital sampling on 'Gratitude' which works better than it has any right to and 'See Your Sunshine', which somehow manages to come out sounding pure Wings 1973 whilst sounding very much like a song from 2006).
Overall, then, I'm rather perplexed by 'Memory Almost Full' - as you may have guessed. So much of it works so well - and yet other parts barely work at all. If this was a set of tennis I'd be offering you something along the lines of how 'the aces' ('House Of Wax') and 'double faults' ('Dance Tonight') cancel each other out, how moments of brilliance and chances of break-points got snuffed out in the end despite the hard work and effort and how this game set and match can't match up to past glories when the creator was in his prime. However it's not quite as simple as that: Macca's given us uneven albums before and albums like 'Red Rose Speedway' 'Venus and Mars' and 'Tug Of War' are just as equally split between moments of perfection and moments of stupidity. Unlike those records though there's a sense of things being back on track again, of having overcome the dark times when things went wrong and the songs wouldn't form properly, with the album full of the sheer joy of being able to make something this good again after such a difficult time. It's just that those dark times and songwriting ruts haven't gone away completely yet and though inspiration has returned, Macca's confidence has taken such a beating from years of indifference and poor sales and shrinking inspirational wells that he still can't quite tell his good ideas from his bad ones. The end result is an album that would have both horrified and enchanted anyone from 1967 with a time machine who wanted to see what their twenty-five-year-old musical saviour really did sound like at sixty-four: the mistakes that would so usually get ironed out by someone are here in all their clunky glory and there's little here to match the past glory days when everything worked just because it was being put together by the most perfect band for their times who could do no wrong. However Macca is also far from the washed-up money-gone toothless retired character he once half-dreamed for himself on 'When I'm 64', still - just about - in touch with all the musical twists and turns down the decades (even if he's not quite setting the pace as he once did back in the summer of love), still - just about - relevant and still very much with something to say.
There was talk, back when Memory was a new album and not yet overloaded, that many of the songs from the album were 'leftovers', songs that weren't considered good enough to make the 'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' album. If true then that surely proves once and for all that Paul's biggest weakness has always been dividing between his best and weakest songs because by and large there's no comparison between the two. Ironically the one song we know that was most definitely new and apparently written in something of a hurry is by far the worst song here. 'Dance Tonight' is one of those gormless cheery McCartney pop songs that, like 'We All Stand Together' and 'Ebony and Ivory', risks so much for seemingly so little, allowing Macca-haters to say 'bah - he's always been a terrible writer' without allowing the Macca lover anywhere to go ('yeah but this is just another silly love song that happens to be about, erm, dancing' is not the best comeback I've ever made in my years as a Beatles fan). The trouble is there's so little here to defend: a loudly thudded stamp, a tinny ukulele phrase so irritating that even passionate aficionado George Harrison wouldn't have unleashed it on an unsuspecting public and a chorus that really does pass over the depths and mysteries of the universe Macca is so utterly totally capable of for a chorus that runs 'Everybody gonna dance tonight, everybody gonna feel alright, everybody gonna dance tonight'. As usual with the Macca songs that really don't work there's a whole host of people out there ready to defend it on the grounds that anything by an ex-Beatle can't be as bad as something bad by someone else, but even compared to previous mistakes there's just nothing here, a dappy sappy lyric about joining together for the thrill of the dance that's vague enough to be embarrassing rather than cool even in 1966 rather than 2006. Only the sudden unexpected lurch to a minor key for the all-too-brief middle eight ('Well you can come round to my place if you want to') tries to appeal to something other than the lowest common denominator but even that is flawed, sounding like it belongs in an entirely different song. Fluffy pop singles used to come so easily to McCartney once upon a time and - a few duff ideas aside - usually had something about them that made them stand out from the crowd, whether it was an actually-pretty-deep-message-if-you-think-about-it-hard-enough-underneath-all-the-catchyness ('Listen To What The Man Said' 'Coming Up' 'Pipes Of Peace'), provided something no one else would ever think to say in quite that way ('With A Little Luck' 'Another Day') or simply did this sort of stuff with more class than the opposition ('Live and Let Die' 'Silly Love Songs' and one of the most over-looked Macca singles 'No More Lonely Nights'). 'Dance Tonight' sounds like a bad Beyonce B-side that never got made where dancing is the be all and end all of life - that this was considered the highlight of an under-rated album by a man who once brought the world to its emotional knees and held up one of the largest mirrors to society in existence is a painful lesson in how the pop world works in 2006 compared to forty years earlier. Thankfully, after bracing myself for another 'Chaos and Creation' misfire, the album will never sink quite so low as this again. Paul should choose what he decides to play on instrument rental shops and interpret what his toddler daughter decides to dance to do with more care, for all our sakes.
Luckily 'Ever Present Past' improves in every way - including the distinctive beat that seems to have been the whole point of the last song. A witty take on being reminded of his achievements as a young lad throughout his middle and old age and having to live alongside his ghostly reminder for the rest of his life, it's an interesting development for McCartney's songwriting, starting with that angry biting opening line 'I've got too much on my plate' that he said in interviews at the time fell out of 'nowhere' and encouraged him to think about what annoyed him the most in his life. However Paul is more gracious than a lot of musicians who made fame and fortune through the love of their fans (e.g. Ringo) and the song is delivered with a cheeky wink and cheesy grin that makes you wonder if you've been reading the song right. The lyric expands into a song that underlines the album message about running out of time, angry not so much at having to live up to one's past but that it has prevented Paul from doing so much other stuff he wanted to do and his awareness that he's running out of time. Like much of the album, Paul is still proud and slightly in awe of his past ('The things I think I did, indeed I deed-a did!' is the silly chorus) and his gorgeous middle eight hangs in the air with so much left unsaid about lost opportunities and growing old ('It went by, it flew by, in a flash'). It's a cheery pop song with muscle this one, thanks to that slight ambiguity and one of the tightest performances on the album - all the more impressive given that it's actually a 'solo' performance a la 'McCartney' and 'McCartney II' with Paul showing off his excellent bass, drum, keyboard and especially guitar skills in one excellent whole. One of the album's better songs that fittingly uses most of the skills Paul has learnt down the years, particularly his poppier 1980s albums which are full of deep-songs-posing-as-fluffy-pop (this track is in many ways the slightly less paranoid cousin of 'The Other Me' and even uses the same key from what I can hear).
'See Your Sunshine' is one of those songs we've been having a lot of recently on McCartney songs - the anonymous pop ballad. In years gone by there wasn't a McCartney song I didn't have a strong opinion on, whether it was for against or a song with unfulfilled potential that was a bit of both. 'Sunshine' though - like so much of 'Flaming Pie' 'Driving Rain' and 'Chaos' - is instantly forgettable, full of some nice ideas that don't ever coalesce and a melody you're guaranteed to forget once stronger ones have come along on the album to wipe it out your head. In case you can't remember it too, it's the cheery one with a summery feel and a mass block of backing vocals that sound like a cross between George Michael and The Beach Boys which are easily the highlight of the track, even if they sound slightly out of place here. The lyric sounds like the last of the handful of love songs Paul wrote for Heather (other than the 'experimental' albums - 'McCartney II' and 'Electric Arguments' and the like - 'Memory' is perhaps the Macca album with the lowest quota of 'silly love songs' of them all, understandable given the impending divorce and actually quite a refreshing change). Like 80s B-side 'It's Not True' people ask Paul why he's in love with someone, but he can't explain with his head - he just feels it in his heart. After five long heavy years of deflecting media rumours and gossip about what Heather was really up to it could well be a leftover song from those days with Paul vaguely putting the record straight. However the character in the song doesn't always sound like the media-savvy and the images of a carefree girl picking flowers to put in her hair as she dances to the music lingering in her head after Paul has stopped singing sounds more like a memory of Linda - or possibly an early love song for Nancy (maybe it's bits of all three, perhaps with even a bit of Jane Asher in there?) Paul's gentle urging that his loved one is ready to greet the world and is more than up to the task sounds more like Nancy to me though. Whatever the inspiration, it's good to hear Paul so happy and so far away from the days of 'Driving Rain', even if his darker days do tend to inspire his better songs - this one is so-so (as well as being a re-write of 'So-So Bad').
Back before this record's release the world's press anticipated a McCartney howl similar to a 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' primal scream album - perhaps missing the point that this wasn't really Paul's style (and that he'd got about as close as he probably will on the post-Linda songs on 'Driving Rain'). Then again, the song that most assembled press and fans got to hear first was 'Only Mama Knows', a live favourite that really should have been picked as the single over 'Dance Tonight'. A groovy, tough rocker that merges the tough open spaces of 'Jet!' (you can almost hear the ghostly backing vocals going 'woo-hoo woo-hoo') with the aggression of 'Angry' and 'I've Had Enough', it's one of Macca's better 21st century rockers. Paul really gets into character as the baby abandoned at an airport terminal with no explanation turned into a tortured, confused adult unable to deal with the pain of this unpleasant 'ever present past'. It's good to hear a writer as empathetic as McCartney going back to writing about people who sound real rather than just 'cipher' characters and you can almost hear the younger music journalists going 'gosh - I never knew he was abandoned at an airport terminal!' so convincing is his half-screamed performance throughout the song. Really, though, this is a song about abandonment - a feeling Paul was getting used to after a difficult ten-year period - and his howl of pain that 'only mama knows' why she wasn't there (Paul's mother Mary died of cancer when he was fourteen) is in its own way as affecting as Lennon's on 'Mother' and as close as Paul has got to putting that particular ghost from his past to rest. You sense Lennon would have approved of the gritty approach too, where McCartney and band play with a fire and drive and speed that would put bands thirty years their junior to shame. Only a slight sense of fizzling out, with no real resolution or change of direction (a middle eight would have made a strong song even better) and an occasionally clumsy lyric ('I'm on my way, no road no ETA')prevents this from being one of his very best songs. That said some of these lyrics are truly excellent: the idea of a baby being abandoned at an airport full of people with destinations makes him stand out even more and the contrast between the mother laying the baby down and the weary adult laying himself down in exhaustion is clever songwriting.
'You Tell Me' starts off with some lovely backwards effects that already puts the listener in mind of the summer of love before that oh so Ray Davies opening verse comes in about an old man looking back on his past with wonder, unable to recall dates and names and convinced that in the past it was always sunny and never ever rained (I never 'got' that old folk story about memories always being set with sunshine - for me the best days were the wet ones when I got to stay inside and play records - especially McCartney ones; the outside world is for people too afraid to spend time in the superior inner space - or have I just been listening to too much George Harrison?) Anyway, the reason I bring up that hoary old cliché is that this song is full of them: 'The air was buzzing with the sweet old honey bee' 'the bright red cardinal flew down from his tree' (apparently this really happened while Paul was in his London garden writing this song!) 'the butterflies and hummingbirds flew free' - this lyric belongs in a David Attenborough nature programme, not a song about memory and are too universal to have the real frisson of Paul opening up to us that the gorgeous melody implies. Because this is another gorgeous melody, another of those tunes that sound so obvious and perfect you can't quite believe no one else has ever come up with them before in all those decades of pop music (and millennias of music in one form or another). This melody deserves a lyric as strong as it is and so does the performance, full of ghostly 'Abbey Road' style backing vocals that sound flown in from another dimension and another lovely band performance that merges acoustic and electric guitars, sparse percussion and a shaky mellotron to great effect. Paul's lead vocal, returning to that beautiful falsetto of his, is also right on the money and it's all the more moving for the slightly aged wobble in his voice (artificially 'treated' to sound stronger than it is on most songs on the album but left exquisitely fragile here, as it deserves to be on a song about aging).
'I just came up with the name 'Mr Bellamy' because he sounded like someone who wanted to jump' - this is Paul's entire back story explanation for one of his madder, confusing songs as reported in the tie-in interview CD. Is this a nonsense song? Or is there something deep hidden within this strange song? Ten years on and I still can't tell, a poignant brass band teasing at us with its 'Family Way' style austerity and bleakness before the noisy main song arrives, complete with 'Northern Voices' and daft lyrics that suggests it's just a bit of fun. My guess is that Paul has been listening to much Simon and Garfunkel - this song is a pretty close re-write of 'Save The Life Of My Child' (the first track 'proper' from their 1968 LP 'Bookends') complete with impressionistic visions and snatched half-heard conversations. While both songs treat something that should be sad and serious as a joke (a man wanting to take his own life) the difference is whose joking. Paul Simon's comment seems to be that a youth suffering from genuine life-altering angst is being treated as just another over-reacting teenager by the people below who seem even further away from him than the many feet below, raised to some sort of a pedestal on his roof seeing the world from a much higher, deeper pointy of view. Paul McCartney sees Mr Bellamy as playful, treating the whole thing as a joke ('I like it up here!') while concerned residents rally around below, slowly moving forward in order not to push him over the edge (figuratively and literally). One take on this lyric and Macca's delightfully cheeky performance would be that he's flipped and gone mad - or that he was only ever up to a bit of mischief and never really meant to jump. How you interpret this confusing song though really depends on what you think happens at the end, with a minute-long coda of falling notes gradually descending, but slowly and delicately in slow motion rather than with a cold hard 'splat'. 'Come down, come down' Macca coos sweetly over the top - is this the vision giving Bellamy peace and healing, offering him the privacy and freedom he doesn't get in his real life? (Interestingly the lyric sheet throws in an extra line I hadn't heard 'come back to me', hinting that Mr Bellamy's life has been disrupted by loss and he's not thinking straight).Was his messing around a deeper cry for help? (Was it born out of the poverty the opening colliery brass band lick implies?) We never get an answer, which for once on this site seems like a plus: Mr Bellamy has more dimensions to him than most McCartney characters the production effects and effort put into this song make it one of the longer-lasting of this album's songs in the memories, even if all the silly voices and stop-start nature of the track do get on your nerves a bit.
'Gratitude' is the closest Macca has been to gospel since the na-na-nas on 'Hey Jude'. Far from a universal singalong, though, this is a personal confession sung by the most OTT Macca narrator in years (he says he was 'doing a Little Richard' in the interview, but this is more Janis Joplin than 'Long Tall Sally'). Though a nice idea, it's sadly taken a bit far and - especially after the last track - simply sounds like Macca has flipped his wig again. That's a shame because there's a decent song here, one where Paul struggles to put into words what it means to be 'loved' - though the lyrics hint that this is an artist-fan relationship rather than a 'silly love song'. Paul returns to a few lyrics from his past that only true fans will get (an interesting move on album that was initially given free to the general public with The Mail On Sunday but never mind - oh and did anyone else notice that the Daily Fail's 'McCartney exclusive interview' turned out to be the same one heard tucked away at the end of the deluxe edition?!) with an end to 'lonely nights' and a 'lonely' road. Macca sounds very much the converted believer and the idea of faith is a neat twist on his usual love song themes. However 'gratitude' itself is an awkward song to rhyme and scan - it's a great big lump of a word that suggests an awkward nod of the head or a muttered embarrassed 'thanks' which the rest of the song has to fit round and sounds odd coming out of Macca's voice at its most full-throttle. The slowed down 'wish...and hope...and pray' is another of this album's uncomfortable love affairs with stop-start rhythms that are difficult to listen to other extended periods, while the curio backing (which includes a brief snatch of bagpipes and one of the shortest orchestral swirls of Macca's career) is one of the least convincing on the album. Even so, it's good to hear Paul doing something a bit different and this is certainly different!
'Vintage Clothes' is another of this album's promising songs brought down by a careless attention to detail. The idea is intriguing (clothes and material things can come back in and out of fashion in an entirely non-linear way, which seems to work against this album's theme of fading memories but makes a salient point about how the older we get the more ways we seem to have of recorded our lives in detail), the arrangement nicely inventive (with mellotrons on the 'flute' setting a la 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and a terrific bass that utterly refuses to go anywhere you expect it to, darting in and out of the song like a fashion-conscious yo-yo), the melody so-so and the lyrics utterly dreadful. There's a great song to be made out of these ingredients, but this isn't it - the repeated refrain about old clothes from the wrack 'coming back' utterly misses the point it sounds as if Macca started off making, the chaotic whistling and clumsy rhymes make what should be a clever song by a talented songwriter sound like crass stupidity and we never get to the real point of the song: it's the people in the clothes who matter, not what they're wearing and talent should never go out of fashion. Presumably deliberately, though, the song is treated with the urgency and box-of-tricks of a song from the psychedelic era, as packed to the gunnels as anything from 'Revolver' 'Peppers' 'Mystery Tour' or 'The White Album' and the sheer dazzling retro sound proves the point about old sounds coming back into fashion far better than the lyrics do. Oh well - compared to even the best of 'Chaos and Creation' this is a major step up so even with mistakes we have show our gratitude I suppose.
'That Was Me' makes a similar point, a terrific bustling retro rocker that somehow manages to combines the sounds of the 1950s with 2006. Macca busks his way through the song with wild abandon, getting increasingly loud and carried away with every verse on a whistlestop tour through some of his earliest memories, dotting to and fro as something else catches his mind's eye. Paul sounds both proud and slightly humbled that this really was his life people go on and on about so much and even throws in a few memories he hasn't spoken about on 'Anthology' et al: at scout camp, in the school play, playing conkers at the bus stop... In a way it's the Macca bit from 'A Day In The Life', the grounded bit in a life filled with colour and excitement that would have caused other people in his position to go a bit bonkers, hinting that for all his fame and fortune it was the little nuggets of 'real life' that Paul remembers best - 'sweating cobwebs in a cellar' known as The Cavern Club rather than playing to screaming fans or perfecting number one hits. What comes through from this song, which stops circa late 1962 before The Beatles really take off, is that this early life could have been anyone's - that back in the days before Paul was about twenty he was no one special, with the same memories everyone else of his generation had. 'When I think that all this stuff can make a life, it's pretty hard to take it in!' he screams, returning to the sound of his youth in his search for answers in his old age to life's mysteries. A special song.
'Feet In The Clouds' promises so much too. His memory perhaps triggered by the last song, Paul remembers a time when everyone assumed he had no future at all - never mind one as glittering as he had. Traditionally Paul's interviews discussing his childhood have been bright and sunny - certainly compared to John's and George's, with no venom, jealousy or bitterness even at the all too premature death of his mum. This song though hints that Paul was all too aware of the way his teachers wrote him off, finding it 'very very very very very very hard' to engage with 'real life' and dismissed as a dreamer who'll come to nothing. Those lines seem alien to Paul's voice after fifty odd years of hearing the glass overflowing never mind half-full and while less poetic and 'edgy' than Lennon's similar childhood reminiscences they sound all the more remarkable for coming from Paul. He remembers in the tie-in interview how dark his school was, how the old Victorian building always looked threatening and cold and distant, how his teachers were all war veterans still shell-shocked from fighting (yes - this is the closest McCartney has come to writing his own version of Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'!) and how nobody wanted to be there. No wonder he sounds disconnected, off in a world of his own - the difference is that his imagination offered him a future and a brightness that no one else in this bleak miserable building can sense, a secret that's precious and will pay dividends just a few years later when John and Paul meet for the first time. However what should be the revelatory song on the album and the McCartney composition of the era to blow all the others away loses out thanks to a trite chorus that again doesn't fit ('I know that I'm not a square as long as they're not around' is a C-Moon style pun too far), a characteristically gauche verse that rhymes words endlessly with emphasis even when they're very ill suited ('Stood Corrected. Well Protected. Umm, Resurrected? As expected!') and some ridiculously overblown modern technology messing about that's just too darn full of the present to belong in a song about the past. I really do find it very very very very very very very very hard to review these songs when Macca gets so close to perfection and yet undoes all that good work with a few careless lines and clumsy mistakes that could so easily have been straightened out had he still been workin wqith some brave enough to stand up to him creatively.
Then again, they'd have probably told him not to bother with the deeply unusual, rule-breaking uncharacteristic 'House Of Wax' at all and we'd have been robbed of the one song on the album where everything works. The closest Macca has come to fitting one of his impressionistic paintings into a song, it's an operatic haiku where the stakes get getting bigger and bigger with every verse. Lesser songwriters would have concentrated on the moment in the metaphor that a house made of a flammable substance catches alight and burns down mercilessly, but Macca instead pitches this song just before the house he's built so carefully catches fire. It's a moment that only he can see and everyone else is oblivious to, which just makes his helplessness and fury all the worse. He's not quite alone - 'poets spill out onto the street' suggesting that there's a whole place, possibly a whole world of such houses about to go up in flames, tying this song up with his ecological songs of yesteryears. This time however instead of the faintly cosy 'Wildlife' and cuddly 'Ode To A Koala' the world is dying, ravaged and bent and right on the verge of self-destruction, wonderfully summed up in song by a blistering guitar solo by Rusty Andersen that's everything a good back-up musician should be - right there with the song's creator, outraged and terrified as everything mankind ever built up is destroyed in one quick go. Macca's lyrics are far more poetically convincing than anything that made his 'Blackbird Singing' collection of poems and he should write like this more often as his images are much more arresting like this: 'To set alight the incomplete remainders of the future' 'Poets scatter through the night but they can only dream of their confusion'. Best of all is the revelation at the end that the Earth can yet recover if mankind disappears, the planet dissected like one of those geography text-book pictures of layers and with the latest man-made bit on the top taken away: 'Buried deep below a thousand layers lay the answer to it all'. It's a stunning song, delivered with one of the greatest McCartney vocals of them all - you keep thinking he's gone as loud and as powerful as he can and then simply keeps on going, set to a claustrophobic backing that's pure class. At five minutes it's not that long by previous Macca standards (its 90 seconds shorter than 'Silly Love Songs' for a start) but in the context of an album that prides itself on its short snappy three-minute production wonders this track really stands out in all its multi-faceted shining glory. More like this please, Macca! If PETA (the animal preservation charity Macca has done so much for down the years) doesn't use this as their theme song at some point in the next fifty years something has gone very wrong.
The high drama continues with 'The End Of The End', a lovely eulogy seemingly released here 'just in case' something happened to Paul before the next album (which thankfully wasn't the case). In the context of 2006 you can so see where this song is coming from - Paul's legacy was never as damaged as it was in the Heather Mills years and after seeing the over-eulogising for Lennon and the under-eulogising for Harrison may have been very worried about his own legacy. The 2001-2003 world tours were full of eulogies for lost loved ones: 'My Love' for Linda, 'Something' for George, 'Here Today' for John - it seems the most natural thing in the world for the ever-organised Paul to plan his own tribute song; if anything it's a surprise this song isn't on 'Driving Rain' or 'Chaos' but had to wait this long to be written. Even though this song steers close to saccharine with a Yesterday style string quartet, it's a typical McCartney trick that isn't sorry for itself for a minute. Trust Paul to comfort his fans, asking for warm smiles and old stories to be 'rolled out like carpets' for his fans to sink into as they raise a glass to him. There's no reason to cry because 'it's the start of a journey to a much better place - and this wasn't bad, so a much better place would need to be special'. However as much as Paul tries to be strong and asks for us to be happy when the time comes, the melody is doing something quite different entirely, one of Paul's loveliest sombre pieces than can't help but be sad. All in all it's a much better take on life and death than 'Little Willow', his rather trite song in tribute to Maureen Starkey in 1997, and easily the best McCartney song about death since 'Eleanor Rigby'. Comparing the two makes for interesting comparisons actually: Paul's biggest fear seems to be that he'll die as alone and as unloved as his spinster character who never married and was buried in the church where she dreamed of finding happiness, picking up rice in congregations. But Paul's imagined own passing finds him surrounded by hordes of people all come to bid their jovial farewells and wish him well - he's lived a good and happy life that Eleanor Rigby could only have dreamed of and the McCartney warmth shines through loud and clear in this song with another riveting lead vocal, with only a couple of lyrical blunders preventing this from being another out and out masterpiece.
Alas it's typical of this album that Paul should take the perfect end song and give us an unwanted coda. 'Nod Your Head' is apparently here because Paul didn't want his audience sobbing - but you have to wonder why he wants our potential last memories of him to be painful instead. 'Head' is a deliberately ugly song, a primal rocker based around two out-of-tune swirling guitar riffs drenched in feedback that's meant to sound young and funky but like much of 'Back To The Egg' before it just misses the point in every way. What's really ugly though is the lyric: we've had 'gee up' lyrics from Paul before many times but few have been quite this, well, hurtful: tired of looking after a depressed loved one Macca's narrator demands a change in attitude and all but forces her to nod her head in approval at his plans to get her out of bed. Suddenly that nodded head - the equivalent of the thumbs-aloft pose caricaturists so love about Paul - doesn't seem quite so nice or comforting as Paul whines 'well if you really loved me baby - better than staying in bed...' Suddenly you begin to wonder if Heather Mills didn't have just a teeny tint point that the abuse and excesses in their relationship wasn't entirely one way (to be fair everybody's allowed a bad day when they're grumpy and frustrated, but why turn it into a song and release it on an album where it doesn't fit? At least make it a B-side if you have to release it - I'd have swapped this song with 'Why So Blue' any time!) Who votes to forget this song ever existed, nod your head!
Still, generally 'Memory Almost Full' if pretty good - not 'Ram' or 'London Town' good of course or even 'Press To Play' or 'Flowers In The Dirt' good and if I only had to save one 21st century McCartney album from fire or flood it would be, umm, 'The Fireman' album or 'Driving Rain' (what is it with Macca and the elements?!) However 'Memory' is a step in the right direction, with perhaps half an album of very good to excellent material and another half of what's left over showing promise in between the mistakes. The songs don't turn up as effortlessly as they once did and Paul's need to detach himself from his work during his toughest personal times results in an album that isn't always that interesting, but there's a lot of heart in this series of songs about age and memory and lots of great touches right the way through from the compositional stage to the recording and production process. Above all, Macca sounds as if he wants to make this album, rather than the 'duty' albums of recent years released to fill in the silences and keep busy more than anything else, and Macca is surrounded by a team that for the first time in years really do have his best interests at heart rather than making a quick buck out of everything. All in all, I think the 25-year-old McCartney of 1967 would have happily signed up to having an album this good out so soon after he turned sixty-four, still full of the same visions, clever concepts, character portraits and emotional involvement as his younger self even if a few of the natural gifts that once came with ease have gone a tad Rusty (pun intended). Would that most songwriters that age were still working with a tenth of that same fire - despite a memory filled with more images and more discoveries than perhaps any other writer of his generation.