Memory Almost Full
ince I’ve dutifully avoided the half dozen studio albums released since he scored his last Top 40 hit in 1989, I’m in no position to discuss the “evolution” in Paul McCartney’s music. As rock’s most incorrigible niño lindo, he’s clung to certain verities—the belief in the studio and the belief in the spontaneous—when the evidence shows that he isn’t as resourceful (i.e. young) as he used to be. As to the former, he means not the studio-as-instrument a la Eno, but as sandtrap, in which good songs and common sense run aground; as to the latter, it’s regarding the unfinished or the third-rate as an expensive bauble, attractive if you’re in that mood, but by its very nature meaningless beyond its original context. Sometimes the tension in McCartney’s aesthetic has resulted in whole albums of madness, testaments to his loathsome infatuation with his own cuteness. How else do you explain soiling wonderful tunes like “Letting Go” and “Junior’s Farm” with solos by the third-rate Jimmy McCullough? It’s as if, to prove that he’s a genius, he hires incompetent sidemen for some albums so that on the likes of McCartney II he can then play all the instruments himself—a tactic he employs, by the way, when he imagines that the public wants a Paul “comeback” after its interest in his wonderfulness has ebbed.
Let me add that McCartney’s solo work, with or without input from the vassals he dubbed “Wings,” is extensive enough to reward deep sea diving—or excavation. I’ve defended the Doobie Brothers knockoff “Arrow Through Me” (whose vocal is supple and soulful enough to halt my grousing) many times. I’ve defended whole albums. I’ll go along with the revisionism that has elevated the likes of Ram to a pastoral masterpiece—if these same critics will grant that genius is erratic in the best of cases (as in, say, Prince), and, to be generous, irrelevant when it’s married to whimsy. Maybe it took divorce to rid himself of the chimeras to which his muse was beholden (no matter how bad Heather Mills might be, you try staying married to Paul McCartney). Maybe he’s smoking the right pot. Regardless, the triumph of Memory Almost Full is of an artist not following his instincts so much as dismissing them, of invigorating his command of the studio with an ersatz kind of wisdom: he’s not the Cute Beatle anymore, he’s the Surviving Beatle, and just try to take any of these titles away from him.
Since Paulie is as incapable of a Time Out of Mind as Dylan is of a “Say Say Say,” we have to accept on face value that the jauntiness of tracks like “Ever Present Past” and “That Was Me” are sonic and lyrical updates of an old trick he mastered as early as “I’m Down” (i.e. set an account of vastation and despair to an uptempo if not downright cheerful musical track). I can only hope that an advance copy of the upcoming Traveling Wilburys box set sent by the George Harrison estate is responsible for inspiring lines as right-on as “I’ve got too much on my plate / Don’t have no time to be a decent lover” (this box set, incidentally, does for Harrison’s solo work what “Love and Theft” did for its predecessor: plunges it into a memory hole). Producer David Kahne gets a pleasingly scrappy guitar sound on “Only Your Mama Knows” and proves capable of “Eleanor Rigby”-esque baroqueness (if nothing else) on “Mr. Bellamy.” The biggest surprise is the strength of his paymaster’s voice; James Mercer may be only one of a legion of contemporary popsters who splash the shoals of McCartney’s range, but only his idol can unleash his patented yearning growl on a questionable piece of abstruse pop like “House of Wax.”
I don’t want to overstate McCartney’s achievement. Memory Almost Full is as good as an album as this devotee of frivolity can make in his mid-sixties. It’s one of the few times his modesty doesn’t sound like arrogance (“That Was Me” actually sounds as if Macca had absorbed Bertolt Brecht’s theory of aesthetic distance). A line from the rather wonderful “The End of the World” encapsulates how this album stands in relation to the rest of his work: “This wasn’t bad / So a much better place would have to be special.” He could return to silly love songs on the next one. Craft does have its disadvantages; “craft” and “character flaws” are often synonymous. While I commend McCartney for preferring patness to smugness on “Gratitude,” he’s spent every album since 1970 proselytizing the wonders of this or that domestic virtue. Whether you take him on his word this time depends on your tolerance for the pulpit; it’s why I’m a proud atheist.