On the occasion of Sir Paul‘s 80th birthday, backward-looking appreciations are indeed called for, and we’re getting plenty of them. But the moment also wants a bit of looking forward, too, or at least some present evidence of the evolution of McCartney as a cultural force. Despite his protean creative power—there’s almost no doubt that he was the one driving the Beatles forward from Sgt. Pepper to Abbey Road—he was always the un-Fabbest of the Four, the least cool and the most money-minded. He was the Beatle, after all, who sued the others, even if, in his eyes, it was to save the band’s music from the nefarious Allen Klein.
But the damage to McCartney’s reputation was done. By 1971, the year Linda and Paul McCartney released the critically-panned Ram, “the world was starting to get its story together that John was the edgy, smart, free-spirit good guy”, as the late, great Beatles-loving musician and writer Scott Miller put it, “and Paul was the opposite of that”.
Fifty years later, the edgy, smart, and free-spirited indie label Kill Rock Stars has released a concept album that draws heavily from the McCartney side of the Beatles’ ledger. Not only that, but the title of Caleb Nichols’ solo debut, Ramon, is a direct nod to Ram itself—a wonderful album, in hindsight, perhaps the best McCartney made in the ’70s. Ramon is a sign that he has completed the long and winding road back to credibility. Paul is Not Dead.
Ramon is officially a rock operetta. Nichols’ liner notes lay out the story, which imagines how the Beatles’ Mr. Mustard—whose invented first name gives the album its title—got so Mean: by falling in love, long ago, with a ship captain named Jerome Custard. They were happy together for a while until rumors flew that Ramon’s sister, (Polythene) Pam, wasn’t Jerome’s cuppa but in fact Ramon’s action: “She’s the beard!” as one of the song’s titles goes. Fearing homophobic ostracization and the loss of his inheritance, Capt. Custard pulled up anchor and left Mr. Mustard in the dark. Hello, sailor; goodbye sailor.
Later, Pam died in a freak accident. Long bereft of Jerome and his beloved sister, mean old man Ramon Mustard can be found shaving in the dark, sleeping in the park, and shouting obscenities, as we know from Abbey Road.
Nichols has the literary chops to pull off this conceit. He teaches rhetoric and composition at Cal Polytech in San Luis Obispo and is enrolled in a graduate Creative Writing program in Wales. Ramon and its backstory references Keats, Updike, and plenty of other canonical writers. But the album is virtually free of literary pretension and conceptual portentousness. In the best way, Nichols’ tale of Ramon Mustard doesn’t interfere with the album’s 11 modest, charming, compact songs. Rather, the conceit merely provides a setting to make music, and Nichols is explicit about which music: the album’s first track is called “Listen to the Beatles”.
Although the rest of Ramon bears that title out, both musically and lyrically, it also lovingly echoes Elliott Smith, Nichols’ late labelmate on Kill Rock Stars. Ramon owes nearly as much to Smith as it does to the Fab Four. Even though “Mean Mr. Mustard” was a Lennon tune, Nichols’ music leaves no doubt that the Beatle he listened to most closely as a kid, when he would “eat some stale Doritos / and crush on Jared Leto / and try to understand why all the kids were so damn mean-o”, was McCartney. (Same, perhaps, with Elliott: listen to his heartstring-snapping live cover of “Blackbird”.)
The album’s Ram-extending title is an even more forthright pledge of allegiance to McCartney, and it’s reinforced by the album’s (almost) title track “Ramon”, which borrows the line “Give your heart to somebody” from McCartney’s “Ram On”. That’s followed by Nichols’ canny connection of “Ram On” to “Hey Jude” ‘s let-love-in counsel (“Let it out and let it in”). The song continues to pack in the McCartneyisms, deftly working “Love Me Do”, “Yesterday”, and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” into a single chorus.
All of this is a Beatlemaniac’s delight, as is Nichols’ lightly worn but adroit compositional skill. Nichols has a firm grip on solo Paul’s sound and demonstrates convincing mimicry of some of McCartney’s vocal character and recording techniques, as well as Elliott Smith’s. Ramon sails on the confident cut and colorful jib of Paul’s buoyant craft, but the air in those sails is Elliott’s breathy vulnerability. The result is an album of both spirited melodicism and lovelorn wistfulness. There’s a lightness to Ramon from start to finish, even in its most melancholy moments, that keeps it from ever getting anywhere close to fatiguing. It might be a stretch to say it rocks, but it certainly jaunts. There’s propulsion and singalong throughout, especially on the infectious “Run Rabbit Run” and “Jerome”.
One other lyrical reference to latch onto in Ramon is a line slyly modified from Nirvana’s “All Apologies”: “If all you are is all in all,” begins the chorus of the very Elliott-like “I Can’t Tell You”. (Slier still is Nichols’ unvoiced allusion to “All Apologies”‘ “everyone is gay”.) Notwithstanding the presiding influence of McCartney, it’s a reminder that Nichols came of age in the early ’90s heyday of Generation X: that snakebit demographic that – even in what ought to be the ascendancy of midlife – still find themselves managing the tension between confessional but garbled vulnerability and clear-sighted, cutting irony. That combination, in its darkest form, manifested as the despair that killed both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith.
That’s why Ramon’s yearning closer, “(I Fell in Love On) Christmas Day” – an unironic and unrelated to the Mr. Mustard concept lullaby, which is tacked onto the album like “Her Majesty” is tacked onto Abbey Road – manages to skirt the edge of mawkish mushheadedness without falling into it. “If you can find someone to share / the misery with you’ll be square,” sings Nichols. No one should be able to get away with that couplet—or the Christmas song’s explicit Dickens reference—but Nichols does.
Ramon, despite its big-flavored Mustardy concept, is a wonderfully modest and tender album by an artist who seems to be a smart, free-spirit good guy (the jury is still out on edgy). That puts it at risk (as Generation X itself is) of getting lost in the bad-guy loudness of the world around it and ending up in unheard oblivion. Here’s hoping, even if Ramon doesn’t make Nichols the next “queer icon” he tries to make out of Mr. Mustard, that your local left-of-the-dial station plays “(I Fell in Love On) Christmas Day” every 25th December for as long as there is college radio: “So fall in love each Christmas day / ’cause only love can take away / the loneliness and the bitter pain / that you feel on days like this.”
If you can’t fall in love with some seafaring dreamboat, then fall in love with music. It’ll be there after the dreamboat sails away.