Memory Almost Full
John Metzger's #9 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by John Metzger
Fri June 15, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Paul McCartney will never be in any danger of losing the attention of either the media or the public. His career with The Beatles was enough to give him an iconic status that certainly will keep him on the mainstream radar for the rest of his life. This, however, doesn’t mean that he isn’t concerned about losing his relevance. Where most artists typically have taken inspiration from the darker corners of their hearts and minds, McCartney has favored an outlook on life that is optimistically bright. "Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that," he famously sang in 1976 in a song that not only sufficiently summarizes his overall philosophy but also outlines the problems that many have had with his compositions. His string of uneven outings, which began in the ’70s and continued throughout most of the ’80s, seriously eroded his artistic merits in the eyes of all but his biggest fans. His climb back from the bottomless pit of pop stardom has not been easy. Despite the fact that he has made, with increasing consistency, some sterling albums over the last two decades, his efforts have been dismissed almost as frequently as they’ve been touted as comebacks.
There’s no doubt that the death of John Lennon pushed McCartney off an emotional cliff, thus beginning a restless and, at times, directionless search that has yet to achieve resolution. It has never been terribly clear what McCartney was hoping to find, and considering the extreme lows of Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street, one has to wonder if even he knew what it was that he wanted to uncover. Considering his subsequent series of collaborations with Elvis Costello — on Flowers in the Dirt and Off the Ground as well as on Costello’s Spike and Mighty Like a Rose — the answer was, perhaps, as simple as finding another collaborator to inspire and rejuvenate his artistic inclinations. His work with Jeff Lynne and George Martin on The Beatles’ Anthology project spawned his 1997 outing Flaming Pie on which he not only reestablished but also cemented his connection to the past.
When his wife Linda died of cancer in 1998, McCartney’s world, once again, was shaken to its core. However, rather than interrupting his journey, her passing provided it with further fuel. On Run Devil Run, he augmented 12 tunes from the ’50s with three new compositions, and he tackled all of them with a purposeful sense of urgency that long had escaped his work. Driving Rain extended the ideas that he had outlined on Flaming Pie, but filled with tales of love and loss, it was a more personal effort. Its songs left behind an emotional residue that perfectly captured the unsettling turbulence that had overtaken his heart as he simultaneously mourned Linda and fell in love with his soon-to-be second wife Heather Mills.
In every regard, McCartney’s latest endeavor Memory Almost Full goes hand-in-hand with its predecessor Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. McCartney had started to record the former album in late 2003, but he opted to shelve it in order to begin working anew with Nigel Godrich on the latter effort. Regardless of whether they are viewed from a sonic or thematic perspective, the two collections are intertwined to the point where one certainly wouldn’t and couldn’t exist without the other.
There’s no doubt that Memory Almost Full would have provided a better entree to Chaos and Creation in the Backyard than Driving Rain did. As Memory Almost Full moves along its path, McCartney slips further into the claustrophobic darkness that enveloped him completely on the Godrich-produced affair, and the anguished vocals, ominous strings, and tortured, Pink Floyd-ian guitar of House of Wax helps to place Chaos and Creation in the Backyard into perspective. Nevertheless, setting Memory Almost Full aside and waiting to complete it until now arguably has turned the set into a better outing.
Memory Almost Full begins much like many of McCartney’s albums have over the years. Dance Tonight, its lead track and first single, is immediately gratifying. It is playful, amiable, and effortless, and it bears all of the hallmarks of what has typified nearly everything he has done in his solo career. Tucked inside the tune, however, a string section plays its sad refrain, and although McCartney quickly shoves the feeling aside by reinstating the song’s jovial melody, this sequence provides an indication of the terrain that he will explore for the duration of the affair.
At first, Memory Almost Full appears as if it contentedly will dispense its material in a comfortably familiar fashion. Ever Present Past, for example, is poised somewhere between McCartney’s work with Wings and his ’90s forays with Jeff Lynne. Gratitude invokes the same brand of ’50s R&B that once had informed Oh! Darling, while You Tell Me effectively revisits his contributions to The White Album. Nevertheless, as it progresses, it becomes apparent that the simplicity of Memory Almost Full is a superficial illusion. Simply put, there is a lot going on both lyrically and musically within the endeavor, and it’s only with the utmost patience that it congeals into a cohesive statement.
Memory Almost Full’s subject matter — which addresses everything from McCartney’s own mortality to the failings of his relationship with Heather Mills — is heavier than one might expect. Likewise, although many of its parts might sound familiar — from the theatricality of Mr. Bellamy to the classical segue that introduces and concludes the propulsive rock of Only Mama Knows to the Beach Boys-inspired inflections adorning Vintage Clothes and Feet in the Clouds — the pieces are rearranged, polished, and positioned in ways that, despite being inherently melodic, are frequently unsettling, challenging, and experimental. Even the insistently bubbly Ever Present Past contains the frank admission, "I’ve got too much on my plate/Don’t have no time to be a decent lover."
In a sense, Memory Almost Full is obsessed with the yin and yang of moods and ideas. It is positioned at the crossroads between thoughts that are light and dark, happy and sad. It is at once a nostalgic reflection as well as a ponderous consideration of what the future will hold. Its latter portion is formed from a multi-part suite that starts with McCartney flipping through his family’s photo album (That Was Me) and concludes as he comes face-to-face with his own death (The End of The End). As he slips into the brash, metallic clatter of Nod Your Head, McCartney tosses aside any notion that he’s about to return to the complacency that has settled around his career, and the song’s affirmation of life lends credence to the notion that what he has outlined on both Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and Memory Almost Full is just the beginning of his artistic rejuvenation and rebirth.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box