Written by Scott Homewood
Good or bad, at least listen to it before you decide.
Well, this is it kiddies. I am damned if I do like this album and damned if I don’t like this album. Am I a crazy loon who can’t tell one of my idols’ talent has faded with age? Am I supposed to hate the album because it’s cool to take the piss out of a billionaire’s vanity musical project because he’s out of touch? If I like it am I out of touch myself? If I hate it do I suffer the slings and arrows of the McCartney faithful who would love the album even if it was filled with nothing but the sound of McCartney farting into a microphone? Should I love this album just because it is the work of a former Beatle? Should I hate it just because it is the work of a former Beatle? Is Paul McCartney dancing with a ukulele in a commercial supposed to make him cool now or does it prove he’s a crazy old man who should just stick to counting his money?
The buzz surrounding this album is about way more than just the music itself. It’s got a lot to do with the fact that this is his first album away from a strict alliance with a major label. Though Starbucks (owners of his new label, in case you’ve been living under a rock) is a huge corporation and the album is being distributed by Concord Records and also Universal by association, the feeling is different. Certainly the promotion has been different, with in-stores, secret gigs and street teams working the hell of out of this album in a way no McCartney album has been worked in maybe twenty years. All in the name of making this album succeed so it can be seen as a blow to the major label system. That’s the hook, business-wise. Musically, it’s being touted like it is this year’s version of Bob Dylan’s Modern Times which is to say like a return to form by a rock and roll legend. Whether it actually is a return to form or not I’ll get to a little later. More important is the fallout McCartney is experiencing from all of the hype, which matches the sturm und drang Modern Times begat.
So, McCartney pretty much finds himself in the same place as Dylan. Every time Dylan releases an album, people start getting their hackles up and begin to get polarized about it. Most times even before they hear the album. Then it’s the rush to judgment. Does it compare to past work? Does it make a statement? Should it make a statement? Is it just a collection of songs? Why is it just a collection of songs? It gets ridiculous. I wrote a best-of-the-year review for this website praising the last Dylan album as one of the best albums released last year and one of the best albums Dylan’s done. I stand by my assessment even though a lot of people shot the album down because, in their opinion, it wasn’t as good as Blonde On Blonde or something of the equivalent. My feeling has always been that great albums are of a time and a place. If Blonde On Blonde came out today, I don’t even think it would register on anyone’s radar. I daresay Dylan would sound silly if he presented those songs as new today. Could you imagine how weird it would be for someone past middle age to try to sing the same songs as if he were in his ’20’s? Does that mean Blonde On Blonde sucks now? Of course not. What it means is that music always changes and the zeitgeist always changes as well. Blonde On Blonde works as a statement of a young man in the late ’60’s. It wouldn’t work today. Dylan’s last album Modern Times works as a statement of an older artist in this time. In fact, I feel it is one of the best statements Dylan’s made. But he couldn’t have made it before. And it can’t really compare to his ’60’s work. The climate is different, the man is different. Modern Times stands on its’ own as a product of a new millennium and stands quite well but people always seem to want the same young Dylan who busted on the folk scene in the early ’60’s.
Similarly, everyone wants McCartney to sound as if he just stepped off the plane in New York City with the rest of the Beatles on their way to the Ed Sullivan show. It can’t happen. He has aged for the better and the worse. One can only hope that as an artist ages, his wisdom, insight and stealth pick up the slack from the disappearing energy and intensity. Sadly, real life only too often shows us the folly of those hopes. Most of the time, the reality is to struggle and fight and hope you get just a glimmer of the past to roll your way, if only to have it be the exception that proves the rule. Like Dylan, however, when McCartney does manage to get his muse firing the results can be pretty spectacular, if much too infrequent as his voluminous back catalog would attest.
It’s common knowledge among his fans McCartney has had either three or four albums since leaving the Beatles that are pretty much accepted as top-notch classics. While that’s roughly only one classic album per decade, four classic albums are four more than most artists can muster. McCartney’s acknowledged classic albums are Ram, Band On The Run, Tug Of War, and Flowers In The Dirt. Ram is cited by some die-hard McCartney fans because it was the first solo album from the former Beatle and because he plays all the instruments himself. I personally side with those who don’t believe it was one of his best. Usually the next cited (or first, as it usually is picked as McCartney’s first great post-Beatles album by most McCartney lovers who tend to ignore Ram) is Band On The Run which McCartney made while fronting the band Wings. Even though Wings was definitely a band (Wings guitarist and former Moody Blues bandmember Denny Laine often co-wrote songs with McCartney) most people only think of McCartney when they think of the group. This brings us to the next classic McCartney album, Tug Of War. Recorded in the early ’80’s, it featured a still-young McCartney coming to grips with the demise of Wings and focusing on trying to make credible pop music in a post-punk musical climate. To his credit, he succeeded mightily. McCartney’s next great album came at the end of the ’80’s, at a time when most figured McCartney was washed up, even though the album was released only six years after Tug Of War. Maybe it was because every album released after Tug Of War was filled with horrible dreck. Whatever the reason, Flowers In The Dirt was a great album. Possibly his last great one, for that matter. It was heralded as a return to form for McCartney, who managed to corral the John Lennon-like (at least in mood) Elvis Costello in to help co-write a couple of songs. It is not surprising most fans feel the songs McCartney wrote with Costello were the best songs on the album. The same holds true for Costello’s own album from about the same time Spike. Also featuring several songs written by the pair, Spike is generally considered the best all-around album for Costello and became Costello’s best-selling disc to date, giving more credence to how good those co-written songs actually are. Since Flowers McCartney fans have been waiting in vain for another classic album. While there have been at least a couple of songs on each of his subsequent albums that are comparable to McCartney’s best work, the whole package hasn’t been delivered. But then, who from those halcyon days has been able to deliver a complete package? And should it matter?
These latter-day Dylan albums, Stones albums, McCartney albums – they’re just albums of songs to most people. To me, they are late-inning salvos from artists I have spent my life listening to and watching. Most of the crowd has left and only the die-hards remain. So be it. I don’t know a world without Paul McCartney in it. I don’t know a world without his music. Same for the Stones, same for Dylan, same for lots of older artists. Does that mean I don’t appreciate newer sounds from newer artists? No. I love finding something something incredible from someone who I’ve never heard of before, that’s why I write about music and why I listen to it. To find something new that blows you away. But why is it people get so up in arms about something new coming from somebody a little bit older? It’s probably got much to do with how we see our contributions to the world as we grow older. We see our own mortality in these artists. When they seem as if their screwing up, it makes us bitter and angry. And when they do a slightly better than passable job, we want to sing to the heavens that there’s still a chance the world can be changed. But make no mistake: I am not going to give credit where it isn’t due and I will not give someone a pass because of their legend. On the other hand, I won’t shoot someone down because they have gray hairs and are past their fortieth birthday. To do either would be folly.
Make no mistake; this is not the best solo album McCartney’s ever made. It’s just not. I refuse to say the reason is because he’s lost it or can’t do it anymore because not only do I not want to say that about a person who has written more great songs than anyone, but I just don’t want to because I don’t know. Like Johnny Unitas or Michael Jordan at the ends of their careers, you see the cracks growing bigger but you see enough flashes of the old to make you hope they can do it just a couple more times. McCartney has the skills, but can he control them and use them whenever he wants? That’s the question.
Now, the verdict: I feel that Memory Almost Full is a good album. It doesn’t rank up there with his best, but it’s certainly worth the money, which is more than I can say for a lot of what gets released these days. Considering McCartney has been on a pretty decent roll lately, whether it started with Run Devil Run or Flaming Pie notwithstanding, this album is yet another in a recent spate of albums which have been close enough to greatness to make you think the next one will be the complete deal. That those follow-up albums continue to NOT be the complete deal kind of gnaws at me but if albums like this are the best we can get out of McCartney, I will take it. Lyrically, the man continues to flail, his rhymes just this side of clichés except for certain songs where his instincts still prove formidable. Am I fool for still expecting a choice couplet? Maybe. After all, this is a man that came up with the insipid “Ebony and Ivory” when given a chance to comment on our society almost thirty years ago. So, I guess I shouldn’t expect biting lyrics. Musically, however, McCartney still shines like a diamond way more often than not. Even if I can’t remember the words to these songs, I find myself humming the tunes long after the album has been cut off, which is a sign of a very good album. I like the first single (“My Ever Present Past”) the best with “Mr. Bellamy” following close behind but there are several tunes on this CD I enjoy playing over and over again. The musicianship is top-notch as well, with McCartney’s latest band standing head and shoulders above the others he’s used, including Wings.
People who would like this are legion. Not only is this is a solid, above average album on its’ own right, you have tons of Beatle fans who are going to want to listen to this, and rightly so as it’s well worth their money. Then, you have those who just like solidly made pop music. They’re going to be happy as well, because even though McCartney’s work is not up to Beatle status, very few artists’ work meets that criteria. Don’t go into this expecting a milestone. Check out this album because it’s a good album made by an artist who knows how to make good albums.