McCartney dances toward 64+1

June 5, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

As Paul McCartney gears up to celebrate his 65th birthday on June 18, it's understandable he's feeling a bit wistful about lost youth, the theme that dominates his 21st solo album, "Memory Almost Full," arriving in stores today.

But Macca has been using nostalgia as an emotional trigger in his tunes since he was in his celebrated 20s. Sometimes, the results were memorable, as on "Penny Lane." More often, though, this yearning for days gone by produced his lamest material: Witness his contributions to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which is not only not "the greatest album of all time" but not even the fifth or sixth best Beatles release.

The level of calculation behind the timing of the new disc invites skepticism: A master of self-promotion, Macca not only has pegged its release to his upcoming birthday, but to the 40th anniversary of the release of "Pepper's," with all of its ensuing hype and "Summer of Love" nostalgia. Then there's the fact that this is his first release in 45 years with no association to Capitol/EMI.

As you've no doubt read, this disc comes to us from Hear Music, the new house label of the Starbucks coffee chain, and its many outlets have been instructed to play it exclusively all day long today (and to spin it frequently thereafter) in an example of corporate cross-promotional synergy that seems especially insidious to those of us who are already a bit shaky before we get our caffeine.

Yet despite all of these cautionary signals, "Memory Almost Full" is as strong a solo effort as McCartney has given us in the last 2 decades. That praise is relative, given how bad how many of his albums have been since Wings. But paired with 2005's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," this disc seems to be part of a welcome late-career resurgence, benefitting as much from its creator's burning desire to prove he's still relevant as from the inspiration and spirited playing of the strongest band he has had since his days as a Mop Top. (Sorry, Wings fans, but that's true.)

"Don't live in the past / Don't hold on to something that's changing fast," McCartney tells us on the bouncy new ditty "Vintage Clothes." Ironically, the author of "When I'm Sixty-Four" ignores his own advice on most of his lyrics here, which may be understandable, given the ugly events in the present resulting from his divorce from Heather Mills.

Whatever the reason, Macca proceeds to consider the weight of the "Ever Present Past" ("It went by in a flash"); mull over his accomplishments in "That Was Me" ("Well that was me, Royal Iris, on the river / Mersey beat n' with the band, that was me"); conjure a death ritual worthy of a Wagnerian opera in "House of Wax," and even imagine his own wake in "The End of the End." (His instructions to mourners: "No need to be sad / On the day that I die, I'd like jokes to be told / And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets").

The good news is that, working with power-pop producer David Kahne (the Bangles, the Strokes, Matthew Sweet), McCartney mostly keeps things hook-filled and up-tempo, finally grokking that nostalgia is best when it's moving too fast to get dusty. And there's a welcome fire and intensity on songs such as "Only Mama Knows" and "Mr. Bellamy" (the former echoes "Eleanor Rigby" with its opening strings, while the latter is a similarly empathetic lyrical portrait); the ferocious, disc-closing "Nod Your Head" and the previously mentioned effervescent pop songs "Ever Present Past" and "Vintage Clothes."

To be sure, there are clunkers here, too: "You Tell Me," "The End of the End" and "Gratitude" are all over-cooked, soggy and sullen plodders that could and should have been left on the cutting-room floor. For the most part, though, McCartney delivers the goods, leaving longtime fans more than happy that he's still alive and kicking, and wishing him many more years to come.

 

PAUL MCCARTNEY

"MEMORY ALMOST FULL"
3 stars


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