Monday, June 18, 2007

Ever Present Past

I suppose it's something of a curse for Paul McCartney -- sorry, Sir Paul -- that he can never release a record and have it judged on its own merits instead of compared to glories past. Hey, I revere the man, but I'm as guilty about that as the next guy. So, while I can't say, unconditionally, that I think Memory Almost Full is a really good album, I can say that -- with a judicious bit of editing -- it's his best collection since 1997's Flaming Pie, and just maybe since Flowers In The Dirt in 1989.

First, let's dispense with the editing. The record is bookended by two songs that leave me reaching for the "skip" button. Leadoff track "Dance Tonight" is inoffensive, but also utterly inconsequential, with a simplistic melody and "tonight/alright/shout/about" rhyme scheme that my 10-year-old son could have whipped up. It's not awful -- and for some reason it's been deemed sufficiently charming to be selected as the first single -- but this is one of the three or four greatest composers in pop history we're talking about here, and I think it's beneath him. Meanwhile, the final track, "Nod Your Head," is just awful -- a mindless, misguided stab at thrash rock that only succeeds in making the great man sound clueless and out-of-touch.

But with those two exceptions, the remainder of Memory Almost Full is surprisingly strong, and in places even excellent. "Ever Present Past" -- which I hear as alluding, at least in part, to the very curse I mentioned above -- is quirky, catchy pop in the tradition of McCartney, McCartney II and some of the other solo work on which McCartney has written and played almost every note. "Only Mama Knows" is a terrific rocker, with an "Eleanor Rigby" string intro, and a sweet four-step chord change leading into the choruses that is vintage Macca magic. Elsewhere, songs like "You Tell Me" are potent reminders of what a great acoustic balladeer McCartney has always been. And the record closes -- barring the aforementioned abomination of a final track -- with an Abbey Road-style suite of songs that is consistently melodic, engaging and worthy of repeated spins, and in which the famous McCartney scream -- the voice he used on songs like "Helter Skelter" and "Oh! Darling" -- is revealed to remain in fine form at age 64 (now 65, as of today -- Happy Birthday, Paul). If you're not feeling nostalgic and genuinely touched by the time you get to "The End Of The End," another lovely ballad on which McCartney foresees his own passage to the "much better place" that John and George got to first, then you need to have your vitals checked.

MP3: Paul McCartney - "Only Mama Knows" from Memory Almost Full

BONUS: Writer John Colapinto talks about MAF and interviewing McCartney for a recent profile in The New Yorker.