Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full officially comes out today – just about forty years to the day after the Beatles’ monumental Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in June of 1967. And although Big Mac’s place in music history is beyond question, his days of making music with that same kind of impact are long behind him.
I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about this CD going in.
I saw McCartney on his “US Tour” in 2005, and even from the nosebleed seats it was an amazing three-hour marathon run. McCartney looked and sounded great, displaying more energy than most guys half his age. It reminded me of one of Bruce Springsteen’s shows based on the endurance factor alone. But even though songs like “Jenny Wren” from his then-current Chaos And Creation In The Backyard sounded just fine, predictably it was the classic Beatles and Wings tunes that brought the crowd to its feet.
So, Memory Almost Full isn’t going to change the world the way Sgt. Pepper, or even Band On The Run did. Let’s get that out of way first. But McCartney still has a way with crafting great little pop tunes like very few other songwriters. This new release is full of them.
McCartney’s new album kicks off with the simple, light pop of “Dance Tonight,” which is also the album’s first single. With a basic hook played on a mandolin wrapped around a metronomic bass drum beat, this track almost reminds you of “Let Em’ In,” another simple pop tune with an irresistibly infectious hook that opened Wings Speed Of Sound album.
From there, it’s on to “Ever Present Past”, another gem with a typically fluffy sounding pop hook. It’s not quite “Silly Love Songs,” but its bouncy, uptempo feel comes as close as you are likely to get in 2007. “See Your Sunshine” sounds like it could have come off Revolver, with a mix that puts McCartney’s bass — which sounds as great as ever — front and center for the first time on the album. “Only Mama Knows” picks things up a notch with one of the album’s few straight ahead rockers.
“You Tell Me” is a gorgeous sounding ballad that sounds kind of like a cross between “Yesterday” and “And I Love Her.” McCartney’s voice is augmented by a lovely acoustic guitar and some background harmonies straight out of Abbey Road territory. “Mr. Bellamy” is one of those very British sounding story songs where McCartney centers his lyrics around an equally British, presumably fictional character. Perhaps the character is a distant cousin of Eleanor Rigby or that customer getting shaved at the Barber Shop in “Penny Lane.” The arrangement here is kind of George Martin-light as strings swirl around the vocal chorus of “steady, lads.”
If there is such a thing as a “second side” in this age of CDs and MP3s, it begins here with track number eight, as the song “Vintage Clothes” begins a suite of short songs that carries through to the end of the album. Here the album’s recurring theme of clinging to the past comes up amidst another of those string arrangements that glides between rock and pop. This segues into “That Was Me,” which sounds like a slightly skewed version of “Mean Mr. Mustard” with the bass line again at the forefront, and McCartney building his vocals up to that famous “rock” voice of his.
In this suite of songs there is in fact a feel quite similar to the second side of Abbey Road. The “suite” continues with the poppy “Feet In The Clouds” and the more melancholy sounding “House Of Wax,” which features a nice little guitar solo in the middle, and another particularly more gnarly sounding one toward the end. This is played against a beautiful orchestral arrangement and Mac once again breaks out the rock voice here.
The suite closes with “The End Of The End,” which again begs comparison to Abbey Road’s second side closing “The End,” although here McCartney seems to be trying to put a happy face on the subject of death. As if not to close the album on a downer, Paul adds on “Nod Your Head,” another rocker, as an extra song after the “suite” to actually end the side.
Paul McCartney is said to have actually started this album back in 2003, and then put the project on hold to record 2005′s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, only to come back to complete it this year. The title also supposedly represents some sort of anagram for his late wife and soul-mate Linda. Ouch! Take that, Heather.
Much of the lyrics here also seem to reflect both a yearning towards the past, and the realization that it is directly connected to the present. Likewise, the music here also seems to draw from the past — particularly The Beatles Abbey Road and Wings Speed Of Sound albums in this case — like no other McCartney release has in recent years. The good news is rather than simply retreading those waters, this album is also connected very much to the present in musical terms.
Memory Almost Full won’t change the world the way those milestone albums from Paul McCartney’s legendary past once did. I’m also not wild about the idea of its release on a label bankrolled by Starbucks to be honest. But this is McCartney’s overall best sounding release in years, and some of the best sounding new stuff I’ve heard from an ex-Beatle in a very long time.