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Music Review: Paul McCartney – Memory Almost Full

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Memory Almost Full, the title of Paul McCartney's new album, is a good summation for the music presented on the record. This is an album of compact, ornate sketches detailed with a full palette of standard and unusual instruments. Most of the songs on MAF settle on a single pattern or idea and explore it quickly; only two of the 13 tracks extend beyond the four-minute mark. Where his previous album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard had a grander, more sweeping feel to it, MAF has a comparatively simpler and sunnier feel.

The most interesting thing about the album's opener, “Dance Tonight,” is its use of the mandolin as the primary instrument, a pop music rarity. Outside of that, “Dance Tonight” establishes the template for most of the songs that follow it: a compact song, a single idea, a pleasant melody, an underdeveloped chorus. When McCartney's voice is steady and the melody is pleasant, as is the case on “Dance Tonight” and the following track, “Ever Present Past,” the song works. When his voice or melody fail, there aren't creative arrangements, catchy choruses, or deep lyrical insights to rescue the song.

“Ever Present Past” is a well-constructed song. The lyrics reference the breakneck speed of the modern world, and the song’s quick tempo reflects this theme. Preparing for the release of the record, he said he’s ready for the scrutiny of his lyrics. He also says he was in a reflective mood making this record, an album he actually started writing prior to working on Chaos. That sense of reflection is evident in these lyrics, but the character in this song sees time as having gone by so fast you wonder what impact the reflection has had on him. This is a sunny pop song that recalls “Silly Love Songs” but is not a knockoff of that hit single.

"Vintage Clothes" and "That Was Me" are thematic cousins to "Ever Present Past." The piano intro to "Vintage Clothes" is a dead ringer for "Say You Love Me" by Fleetwood Mac. Where "Ever Present Past" find McCartney struggling to keep up the pace of the world, "Vintage Clothes" finds him trying not to live in the past while still recognizing the impact of the past on the present. "That Was Me" is the most blatantly reflective lyric on the record and the music follows suit. "Ever Present Past" and "Vintage Clothes" evoke the '70s Wings-era McCartney. "That Was Me" sounds even older and would have fit on McCartney's retro Run Devil Run album.

“House of Wax” and “Mr Bellamy” are two of the more interesting compositions on the record. "Mr. Bellamy" has a symphonic opening that gives way to a broken, single-note piano intro. McCartney's voice strains to reach for the higher register – a recurring problem on Memory but this is one of the finer pieces of music on the record. "House of Wax" sports a soaring guitar solo and a dramatic arrangement. At nearly five minutes, it is the longest song on the record and the extended length is justified by the quality of the ideas it explores.

"You Tell Me" is the best example of a song where McCartney's voice is unable to reach its destination. The thinness of his voice in these moments is not pleasing to the ear and it is a shame because he has always been a fabulous singer. At 64, he still possesses a terrific voice but no longer has command of his higher register.

Memory Almost Full is a satisfying listen. Anyone looking for clues into McCartney's mental state during a time of personal turmoil will be disappointed because it takes some real bootstrapping to extrapolate these lyrics into angst-ridden statements about the demise of his marriage. When this album works, and it often does, it plays to McCartney's strengths of melody and musicianship. It gets lost in all the Lennon worship – not unjustified, mind you – that McCartney was the superior instrumentalist and is a marvelous vocalist. Even as some of his voice begins to slowly desert him, he can still do more with it than most can at their prime and it's almost always pleasant and warm. Memory Almost Full is a minor work in his catalog, but a worthwhile one.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • I don’t think that MAF is a minor work, from Tripping the life Fantastic he is improving his records. In this LP Macca take more risk than in Driving Rain and Chaos or Flaming Pie or Off the Ground. Run Devil Run is a side B between all those albums, and MAF is like another side B.

  • William

    With Paul McCartney’s splendid new LP he is found to be doing a spot on Wings impression. No small feat to be sure! The man, who was a member of not one but TWO of the greatest rock bands of all time, forgoes the requisite Beatles route and instead channels his inner Wings. And we are all the more lucky for it. What a joyous sound Mr. McCartney revisits! Not only is his voice in fine form, his song writing is once again at it’s 1970’s peak!

    Paul McCartney has a knack of taking an ordinary statement and imbuing it with intrigue. “I’m so grateful for everything/You’ve given me.” It’s the kind of thing that you or I might say at least once a day. Yet McCartney makes this simple phrase sound as if it is being considered for the very first time. There are songs which are immediately recognizable as potential hit singles, the most obvious being the attractive ‘Dance Tonight’ which opens side one.

    The range of mood is startling: the cool spaciousness and straight ahead drive of ‘Ever Present Past’ contrasts beautifully with the nightclub folksiness of ‘You Tell Me’’ and the heavy metal feel of ‘Vintage Clothes’. Sir Paul hasn’t mined this territory so successfully since ‘Jet’. This one is a real rocker folks!

    Perhaps this is an album that won’t hit you right away, but it grows on you. After five or six hearings, many of the subtleties of the arrangements, the choice of instruments for a particular passage (such as the gorgeous string arrangement that proceeds ‘Only Mama Knows’), the feeling Paul puts into a phrase, or simply the effectiveness of a melody, begin to swim into focus.

    We ought to see plenty of songs from this album climbing straight up to the top of the hit parade from now until Christmas. MEMORY ALMOST FULL is a superb offering. If anybody ever puts down McCartney in your presence, bust him in the chops and play him this. He will thank you for it afterwards.

    Good one, mate!

  • Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • I don’t like this review at all, all the little comments of Pauls register please and his voice failing? this is one of Macca’s best albums in years full of surprises thruout the entire album extremely refreshing with soon to be timeless classics in the making a Brillant little album

    Way to GO PAUL!!


  • George Rabbitt

    I really don’t understand this review with it’s preoccupation with McCartney’s voice ‘deserting him’. I suggest a lack of familiarity with his singing style has confused you! It’s a brilliant record and Paul sounds great.

  • phil weirick

    best album in many years, but the man is right, two to five listens and you cant stop listening if your a paul fan, and if your not —go shoot yourself!!!!

  • joe

    Without question one of Paul’s best efforts. I’m a bit biased because other than a few collaborative misteps in the early 80’s – Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder – there isn’t much that he’s done that I don’t like if not love. BTW, his later collaborations with Elvis Costello – My Brave Face, Mistress and Maid, Lovers that Never Were – more than make up for the Michael and Stevie missteps.

    Memory Almost Full is for the most part brilliant. The only tune I struggle with a bit is Gratitude but it could be because I’ve never listened to much gospel music. Everything else however is pretty much brilliant – the simple, catchy melody of Dance Tonight, the toe-tapping, driving force of Ever Present Past, i could go on and on. Interesting that Paul’s many forays into classical and experimental music seem to be greatly influencing his pop/rock efforts again adding texture and depth that most artists on the scene today wouldn’t even consider. The disc is awesome but do yourself a favor and get the deluxe version which includes the gems In Private, Why So Blue and 222…very cool and different. It should make the Paul is too “poppy” critics shut up once and for all…peace…

  • Eddie

    Well, this will not be a popular opinion here, but the album felt like a let down. Especially with all the hype behind it. I feel Paul’s older work was a lot better. Seems like this was a melancholy dance of mediocrity, while trying to playfully highlight the end of life. I was very, very, very, very, very, very, disappointed.

  • Great show at Fed Ex Field in Largo Maryland on Saturday Aug. 1, 2009. Paul came on at 9:10 p.m. and played the same set list in the same order as he did at Citi Field with one exception: He added “Michelle” in honor of the First Lady. We had no trouble getting in (15 minutes) and left one song before Sgt. Pepper’s closing – and it took 90 seconds to get out.

    The opening act, we thought, was a techo recording, like in an after hours club. We didn’t see any DJ or performer. It got annoying and repetitous after a bit of time. There were a few techo remixed Beatles’ songs, but, at these prices with a crowd this large, it should have had a top opening act . . .

    Paul looks, sounds and is a very young man. He loved the 50-plus thousand in attendance and they (we) loved him.

    -dusty nathan