"Memory Almost Full," Paul McCartney
There are two Paul McCartneys -- the good Paul and the bad Paul. The good Paul is responsible for madcap mini-epics ("Band on the Run"), soulful ballads ("Maybe I'm Amazed") and unimpeachable rockers ("Jet"). The bad Paul churns out inane dipsy-doodles ("Silly Love Songs"), half-baked sketches (the entire of 1971's "Wildlife") and execrable pander-pop ("Ebony and Ivory"). On an almost song-to-song basis, it's impossible to predict which Paul will show up. McCartney's new album, "Memory Almost Full" maintains that tenuous balance between the ridiculous and the sublime, but at 64, with a sepia-toned musical backing of pianos, acoustic guitars and ancient-sounding keyboards and a grain of fragility having crept into his voice, McCartney's faults have, in some weird way, become kind of charming.
"Memory's" opening track, "Dance Tonight," is a perfect example of how time has tempered McCartney's less tasteful musical tendencies. Featuring a set of childishly simple lyrics ("Everybody gonna dance tonight / everybody gonna feel all right" -- assorted variations on that theme) accompanied by an out-of-tune mandolin and a simple drum pattern, the song would've come across like a cloying throwaway had it been recorded even 10 years ago. But now, McCartney's soft, warm vocal helps the sentimentality get over, creating an air of wistful dreaminess.
It's not just McCartney's voice that signals the passing of time -- "Memory Almost Full" is itself almost full of songs that either look back, as in "That Was Me," a rockabilly-enhanced memory reel ("Mersey Beat with the band / that was me"), or ahead, most successfully on the gorgeous piano ballad "The End of the End," wherein McCartney imagines his own death. These homey reminiscences skirt both slightness and self-absorption, but with Linda, George and John all gone, McCartney's nostalgia takes on an added weight that only the cold-hearted could resist.
Beautiful as the album's more thematically weighty songs are, the rockers are where McCartney's gifts shine brightest. The gospel rocker "Gratitude" features the strongest vocal on the album, as McCartney's joyous belting approaches the sanctified air of the "Hey Jude" fadeout. "Vintage Clothes" reaches similar heights; its slashing guitar and harmony-soaked bridge make it a near-perfect pop rocker.
This being a Paul McCartney album, a few appearances from bad Paul were inevitable ("Mr. Bellamy" is stoned nonsense; "Nod Your Head" sends the album out on rote blues-rock), but for the most part, "Memory Almost Full" is a sturdy, sweetly elegiac album. Long live the good Paul.
Favorite track: "Gratitude"
-- David Marchese