Paul McCartney long ago passed the point in his life and career where he had anything left to prove. Yet at 64, he continues to release new music at a pace that puts acts half his age to shame. And while his post-Beatles work has been derided by many as being so much fluff, his output over the last decade has been consistently satisfying.
Macca’s winning streak, which began with 1997’s Flaming Pie, continues with his most recent release, Memory Almost Full. And while it may not surpass McCartney’s best albums (Band on the Run and Tug of War to name a few), Memory Almost Full reveals that Sir Paul’s gift for melody is still very much intact.
Although much of the album was written around the same time as 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, the two records are very different. While most of the excellent Chaos is calculated and somber, Memory generally comes across as more lighthearted and spacious. The first three songs (“Dance Tonight,” “Ever Present Past,” and “See Your Sunshine”) find McCartney in an upbeat mood.
The first standout track, “Only Mama Knows,” begins with a deceptively melancholy orchestral section before morphing into the most effective rocker on the album. Here McCartney proves, once again, that he has just as many rock chops as John Lennon ever did.
Throughout the album, flashes of McCartney’s past work are heard. “See Your Sunshine” evokes classic Wings, but still maintains a thoroughly modern approach. “Mr. Bellamy,” an endearing character portrait full of quirky bits, hints at what The Beatles might have produced had they not split apart.
One negative on Memory Almost Full is Sir Paul’s gradually weakening voice. While Paul still sings with more authority than most of his contemporaries, he is betrayed by age on slower numbers like “You Tell Me” and “Gratitude.” And while the former is redeemed by excellent songwriting, the latter is probably the only real clunker on the record.
While the first half of the album is good, it is also underwhelming. Where Memory Almost Full really starts to get interesting is during the second half. McCartney, who has never shied away from extended song suites, delivers his best since Abbey Road. The suite begins with the brief but catchy “Vintage Clothes,” which contains some tastefully modern production flourishes. It continues with the up-tempo “That Was Me,” which finds Paul reflecting on his incredible life with a sincere sense of wonder.
“Feet in the Clouds” is on the slight side and is saddled with some unnecessary vocoder effects, but is still an interesting composition. The stunner and best song of the suite (as well as the album) is “House of Wax,” which also contains some of McCartney’s most poetic lyrics ever – not to mention some rare and effective guitar solos. This song will go over very well live, should he choose to perform it.
“The End of the End” is essentially Paul’s own epitaph (“On the day that I die I’d like jokes to be told/And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets/That children have played on/And laid on while listening to stories of old”), and is one of the most emotionally powerful songs he has written. But even in the midst of sadness, Paul whistles and reminds us that there is “no reason to cry.” In a conscious effort to not end the album on such a down note, Paul included the more upbeat and much weirder “Nod Your Head” as the last song on Memory Almost Full.
Much has been made of the autobiographical nature of this album. This is true not just in a lyrical sense, but in a musical one as well. Paul McCartney has almost half a century of musical development to call on, and does so often on this album. But rather than being derivative or recycled, Memory Almost Full is the work of an artist who is not afraid to revisit the past but knows better than to stay there.
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