I buy new Paul McCartney albums because I’m glad he’s not dead. Not the greatest reason, I know, but I grew up a Paul McCartney geek, a big Beatles fan who bought everything Beatles related that made it to the shelves. This was the eighties. John was dead, George never toured, and though I loved Ringo, as both a drummer and a music fan, McCartney was the one guy I thought I might get a chance to see someday.
Alas, McCartney never came to Rochester, NY or Buffalo to promote Press to Play, Off the Ground, or Flaming Pie. And since I’ve been in Boston, I could never pay the ticket price when he came through on one of his mega-stadium tours. But I can manage to pick up the occasional new release.
Which brings me to the latest disc, Memory Almost Full. Thanks to his Starbucks synergy, McCartney has made a big dent in the charts since he released the album last month. You can buy a glorified danish, a bucket of caffeine, and Paul McCartney’s soul all in one place.
It may seem a bit childish to accuse McCartney or anyone of selling out at this point – that boat seems to have sailed at this point, never to return. But Starbucks? Why not just give everyone a free download with their Happy Meal. And McCartney may want to rethink the close-up in the new iTunes commercial where he’s tripping along with a weird, blue face and basset hound eyes singing “Dance Tonight.” I can’t tell if he’s happy or paranoid or maybe just stoned. Well, okay, probably stoned.
But despite all the publicity and posturing around McCartney, the reality is that the music isn’t bad. There is always just enough of what I love about McCartney – still one of rock’s most talented melody makers, bass players, and singers – to make me glad to have him around.
McCartney still has a wet weakness for drippy ballads, “See Your Sunshine” and “Gratitude” fit that bill here. They are sweet, breezy, and disposable. Listen to more than one in a sitting and you’ll get a stomach ache like you’ve gotten a batch of bad fudge. There’s a difference between silly love songs and just plain crap, and McCartney has always had a problem drawing that line.
It seems like more of the same when the strings kick in on “Only Mama Knows” before McCartney rips into a classic Wings guitar riff. And there’s a little dirt under the fingernails in the story, about a bastard child wondering why he was born and if he’ll ever meet his father.
“Mr. Bellamy” is odd little story song, with the title character standing on a ledge, apparently contemplating suicide, with McCartney providing the voice of the main title character and the workers on the ground trying to coax him down. It’s a nifty piece of pop with an angular piano melody set against a bouncing vocal melody. But then, Genesis covered this ground more effectively nearly forty years ago on Nursery Crime’s “Harold the Barrel.”
“House of Wax” is a complex and engaging soundscape (just don’t listen to hard for the lyrics), and “Nod Your Head” manages to be heavy and goofy at the same time, trafficking dissonant guitars and keys. And McCartney sings it like he means it – he really wants all of you to nod your heads. Okay, Macca, just for you, just this once.
If you’ve ever been a McCartney fan, it’s hard not to get sucked in when he hits that Little Richard falsetto at the end of “Vintage Clothes.” And you can feel what’s been tugging at him when he sings, “Don’t live in the past, don’t hold onto something that’s changing fast” and then dives right into the nostalgic “That Was Me,” a great head bobbing rocker. He lets loose with his classic wail toward the end, singing, “When I think that all this stuff can make a life, it’s pretty hard to take it in.”
“Feet in the Clouds” completes that trilogy, and it’s almost a plea for help. McCartney has been very public about wanting to preserve his legacy, thinking he’s getting short shrift with all the continuing Lennon worship. It’s clear he wants to be cool, too, but the irony is that when he tries so hard to show what he’s done and what he’s still capable of, it sounds forced and he winds up looking like a wanker. “Feet in the Clouds” is pleasant, happy sounding melody – contrast that to the lyrics, which sound like something McCartney might actually repeat to himself every time he hears Green Day sing “Working Class Hero” – “I’ve got my feet in the clouds/I’ve got my head on the ground/I know that I’m not a square/As long as they’re not around.”
And for the contingent out there who don’t actually give McCartney his due, let’s be clear. This is the man who wrote both “Helter Skelter” and “Eleanor Rigby.” His ripping guitar break on “Taxman” is pure rock and roll. He pushed the Beatles into weird places on Sgt. Pepper and provided simple, sublime melodies for everything from “Hey Jude” to “Blackbird.” And again, there’s that voice and that bass. Rock and roll would not be the same without him. He would have to be the most insecure guy in rock history to question that, but that’s always been part of his motivation. It’s what led him to write and record “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” for the White Album, and that was at the height of the Beatles’ popularity.
It’s a shame McCartney will probably never get past worrying about his legacy. Most musicians would kill for his toolkit. And his true talent isn’t fading as much as it is just buried by his worst instincts. But as long as Paul’s not dead, there’s a chance I’ll get to see a flash of that, and even that little flash is enough to keep me coming back.
Keep swinging, Paul. I’m pulling for you.