Paul McCartney frees himself from yesterday and today
Paul McCartney is a musical master, but nobody has ever accused him of bleeding for his art. A tortured artist he is not.
McCartney's lot is to be stereotyped as a remarkable craftsman, not a soul-searching artist. From rock songs to classical symphonies, the singer has done it all, without breaking a sweat, which often makes his work appear slighter than it actually is.
Yet at the core of many of his greatest songs is an underappreciated virtue: empathy. From "Eleanor Rigby" and "She's Leaving Home" to "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be," McCartney wrote with compassion about quiet anguish, and his words and music became a balm.
But McCartney's output over the last few decades has been erratic and sometimes downright sloppy. He's written a lot of music, but rarely did he appear motivated to see it through to completion, to take the promising ideas he routinely churned out and turn them into finished songs that rank with his best work.
"Chaos and Creation," his 2005 album, was a step in the right direction, and his 21st solo album, "Memory Almost Full," out Tuesday, is even better. McCartney once again sounds engaged with the world. It marks the debut release on the new Starbucks-fueled Hear Music label. And it arrives in the same month as the Beatles' revered album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," turns 40, and McCartney turns 65. It also follows the messy breakup of the singer's marriage to Heather Mills, a recent "Dancing With the Stars" contestant.
At the same time, McCartney is moving forward in a way that suggests he's much more interested in his future as an artist than in his past. His deal with Hear Music, a joint venture between Starbucks Entertainment and Concord Music Group, breaks his longtime ties with the major-label system that he helped sustain over the last four decades. He also will make his music available by digital download from online retailers for the first time.
What's more, recent events - the death of his first wife, the divorce from his second, encroaching mortality - have conspired to cast McCartney in an unfamiliar role as a sympathetic figure. In playing the charming Baby Boomer icon for decades, the singer rarely came off as vulnerable. In the endless facile comparisons to his old songwriting partner, John Lennon, McCartney always was portrayed as the glib, self-effacing one, the Beatle who coveted the fame but not the intimacy with his fans that Lennon so naturally cultivated.
"Memory Almost Full" flies in the face of that perception. It's not confessional, a soul-baring document in which fans can find out the singer's innermost feelings about his failed marriage or his newfound senior citizenship. But it is evocative, deeply personal, and, above all, compassionate.
The songs don't wallow in the potential melodrama that subjects such as death and divorce invite. McCartney's light touch sounds exactly right for the heavier-than-usual subject matter, as he looks back on his childhood, ruminates about love lost and even envisions his funeral.
McCartney sang and played most of the instruments on about half the songs. The rest were performed with his touring band. The arrangements are one of the album's greatest strengths; McCartney's slightest songs are often redeemed by the richness of his musical details, and "Memory Almost Full" brims with ear candy.
Two songs are among the toughest rockers he's recorded in decades; "Nod Your Head" echoes the proto-metal of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter," and "Only Mama Knows" matches the propulsion of Wings' "Junior's Farm." Only "See Your Sunshine" flops, an unwelcome return to the maudlin tripe that McCartney foisted on his fans in the `70s.
A few of these songs ("Mr. Bellamy," "Only Mama Knows") are finely tuned narratives in the storytelling tradition of "Penny Lane" and "Eleanor Rigby." At least one, "Gratitude," could be interpreted as addressing his relationship with Mills. It's a soul ballad that echoes his `70s hit "Maybe I'm Amazed" both for its wrenching vocal style and spirit of generosity. McCartney doesn't wallow in self-pity or acrimony over a collapsed affair. Instead, he chooses to remember an ex-lover for ending the days when "I was lonely ... living with a memory." It all works because McCartney doesn't get cute with it; he sings the song with all the conviction he can muster, and pushes his voice toward peaks it hasn't scaled in years.
Much of the rest finds McCartney reflecting on his past and how it still shapes who he is today, notably in a five-song suite that encompasses some of his strongest writing. With its tolling piano, tempestuous guitar and doomy atmospherics, "House of Wax" stands as one of the darkest songs in the McCartney canon, a glimpse toward the uncertain future. It's set in a thunderstorm that scatters poets and melts monuments to the past.
The suite concludes with "The End of the End," in which McCartney imagines his own wake. "I'd like jokes to be told/And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets," he declares. Even in death, he looks ahead "to a much better place."
The sequencing of the album suggests that "better place" is closer than we think. As "The End of the End" tries to shut the door on a life, "Nod Your Head" comes barging through with drums slamming, guitars barking and a grinning affirmation. "If you like the life you're livin'," McCartney demands, "well, nod your head."
It is McCartney once again doing what he always did best: singing a sad song and making it better.