Memory Almost Full Label: Hear Music
When Paul McCartney teamed with George Harrison and Ringo Starr in the mid-1990s to comb through the recorded history of the Beatles and put together the Anthology CDs, it wasn’t so terribly surprising when his next album – Flaming Pie – found his material sounding more Beatle-esque that it had in years. From there, he’s had ups and downs (Driving Rain was certainly an example of the latter), but, again, the strongest of his more recent songs have invariably been those that stylistically resembled his work during the Fab Four’s original heyday.
Upon listening to Memory Almost Full, however, one suddenly realizes how very long it’s been since we last had an album from Paul McCartney where he was actually trying to sound like Paul McCartney.
Yes, that’s right, Paul’s back. Again. And, as ever, people’s opinions of his new album will vary wildly, meaning that you won’t trust my review or anyone else’s review, and that you’ll just have to give the record a spin on your own. Still, if there’s anything I can possibly do to steer you into taking the plunge, it’s probably to offer this declaration: there is material on Memory Almost Full that finds McCartney sounding fresher and more – dare I say it? – rockin’ than he has since he bid adieu to Wings.
Has Macca’s divorce caused his music to be more of a catharsis for him than usual? Well, that might have something to do with it…but on “Only Mama Knows,” which actively draws sonic inspiration from “Jet” and “Junior’s Farm,” the real musical strengths belong less to McCartney himself than his crazy-tight road band: keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, guitarist Rusty Anderson, bassist Brian Ray, and man-mountain drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr.. These guys are, bar none, the best bunch of musicians McCartney’s compiled at any point during the last three decades of his solo career, and this track more than any other shows how well they work together. They also provide a particularly nice turn on the shuffling “That Was Me” and the epic “House of Wax,” and their vocoder-assisted harmonies at the end of “Feet in the Clouds” are a fun touch, mostly because you can imagine them all huddled around the same microphone. That McCartney only chooses to work with this gang on six of the album’s 12 tracks – the rest find him playing all the instruments himself – is probably the biggest mistake to be found on Memory Almost Full.
Not that McCartney’s completely solo turns are bad. As it happens, the album begins with three back-to-back examples of what he can do when his muse is working overtime rather than enjoying a bit too much complacency. The jangle and stomp of the mandolin-powered opener, “Dance Tonight,” lead into the fuzz and bounce of “Ever Present Past,” and from there it’s into “See Your Sunshine,” which, for better or worse, sounds like it could’ve come from Pipes of Peace. (Hey, at least one of his earlier musical eras that he hasn’t already mined to death!) Another one of the all-McCartney, all-the-time tracks that’s particularly successful is “Mr. Bellamy,” a dark but catchy pop song driven by piano and fleshed out with woodwinds.
Musically, Memory Almost Full has some of the strongest and catchiest melodies that McCartney’s come up with in awhile, but let’s be honest: some of the lyrics aren’t the best he’s ever penned. He’s dangerously close “Let ‘Em In” territory on “Vintage Clothes” with the lines, “We jump up for joy / Who cares if we look like a girl or a boy,” and the thought of the schmaltzy “The End of the End” being played at the man’s funeral is almost too much to bear:
At the end of the end
It's the start of a journey
To a much better place
And a much better place
Would have to be special
No reason to cry
No need to be sad
God, that’s bad. You’ll want to skip over that one…and, in fact, you might as well turn off the album after “House of Wax,” because “The End of the End” isn’t actually the end at all; that honor falls to “Nod Your Head,” where McCartney falls flat with an attempt at going vaguely alt-rock. It might’ve worked earlier in the album, but as a closer, it only serves to tarnish the memories of the far, far better songs that have preceded it.
Thankfully, the damage doesn’t prove permanent; in the long run, Memory Almost Full proves to be at least as strong an album as its predecessor, Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard. Given that there are guys in their twenties who can’t manage two solid releases back to back, let alone when they’re 64, let us hope that Sir Paul can produce a trifecta; maybe that’s being too optimistic, but based on the evidence, the odds are getting better all the time.