Strawberry Fields Forever - Nothing is real

Sunday, June 03, 2007

And in the end of the end...?

I honestly didn't expect 2 years after hearing Chaos and Creation in the Backyard to hear another new LP from Sir Paul. What can I say? Sometimes I really like being surprised.

Given that just about everyone has heard (and reviewed) this album even though it isn't out until this Tuesday, I will simply add my voice to the collective chorus - Paul McCartney may have lost his gift... of making frustratingly uneven albums filled with incredible melodies but truly wretched lyrics. This album marks one decade of him releasing truly great albums that I love without reservation.
I know Dylan has the recognition today for being the reformed 60s master who once again is releasing material as good as anything in his career - but really, Paul deserves the same recognition. True, as much as I love Flaming Pie (1997), Run Devil Run (1999), Driving Rain (2001), Chaos And Creation in the Backyard (2005), and now Memory Almost Full (2007) - I'll be the first to say his work with the Beatles was still superior. However, compare those 5 albums to ANY other period in his solo career, and there's no contest.
Ironically, this decade of album making has probably been his worst in terms of album sales (though I can't say that with certainty) - but he no longer seems to care all that much. His efforts from the late 70s (ie: Back To The Egg) or early to mid-80s clearly try to latch onto the latest musical fads in order to keep himself in the so-called mainstream of musical culture. After that, from Flowers In The Dirt through Off The Ground he seems to be going through the motions of trying to sound like a former Beatle. Note: I happen to love a LOT of the music created in this era, but it really sounds to me like him trying to conform to what he thinks others want him to be.
True, Flaming Pie is also quite consciously an album that celebrates his Beatles roots - yet, the album has a real feeling of joy and silliness that was largely missing on his earlier works. I really get the feeling that he is recording the album for himself, and anyone else who happens to like what he likes. At the very least, I really hope he didn't record "Really Love You" with the hope that a song with the lyric "I need you heart baby, hopping on a plate" was going to burn up the billboard charts.
Of course, Flaming Pie also had another factor which significantly distinguished it from his earlier works - a real sense of pain. Listen to "Somedays" and try not to hear his fear for losing Linda to cancer. Sometimes great art comes from chaos and pain - "Hey Jude" was written to comfort a 5-year old Julian Lennon whose parents were divorcing, and up until "Flaming Pie", Paul seemed to be living an awfully good life.
Run Devil Run was recorded in the aftermath of Linda's death - and if anyone listens to his incredible cover of "No Other Baby" you can hear how much he misses her. As much as I love his earlier solo efforts, rarely did he ever pull off that kind of emotion convincingly.
In 2001, he released Driving Rain, which wasn't as good as Flaming Pie (which I consider the high-water mark of his post-Beatles work), but the raw emotion is still there. "Lonely Road" and "Heather" especially show his still raw pain at the loss of Linda, and the excitement of his (then) new love.
Chaos and Creation In the Backyard continued these trends and he released probably the moodiest album of his catalog. The man who recorded "Silly Love Songs" could now pull off a song like "Riding To Vanity Fair"! The album grows on one a lot, but I couldn't help but feel a little bit like the album was heavily influenced by its producer who told Paul how he (Paul) should sound like. Paul's rockier, and sillier tendencies were very much in check, for better or worse.
What precedes just brings me to up to the new album, Memory Almost Full. Technically about half of the album pre-dates Chaos and Creation, but much like Beck's The Information (which mostly predated Geuro, yet was released afterwards), I can't figure out why on Earth Paul shelved the project in favor of Chaos and Creation. I love Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, but as I said above, it doesn't really feel like a full-fledged Paul McCartney album - for better or worse, Memory Almost Full does.

Silliness? Check
Attempt to recapture his Abbey Road medley mojo? Check
An attempt at at least one loud rocker? Check
At least one song extolling him not caring what anyone else says about himself? Check

This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but really, it's glorious. With only 2 exceptions, this album is magnificent. (the two being "You Tell Me" and "Gratitude" - both tracks can be skipped) His silliness is mostly related to the opening track (which should have NEVER been a single) which is basically a mood-setter for the album with simple lyrics and whistling. As an opening cut - it's wonderful.
"Ever Present Past" is much more logical as a single - with some downright interesting lyrics. (when did Paul get good at lyrics!?!?)
"See Your Sunshine" has a beautiful melody, some trademark Paul bass work, and ultimately a really sweet song for his young daughter.
Of course, the album really doesn't come alive until track 4, where "Only Mama Knows" kicks in. By that I mean it really kicks in. After a false orchestral opening the track comes roaring in with some of the most determined guitar tracks that Paul has EVER put on record. There's an anger to his vocal, and a great deal of ambiguity to what the lyrics mean (is he really angry at Linda for leaving him alive after she died??) - but man if this isn't an incredible song. The idea that Paul should avoid trying to write hard rock songs in his 60s is insane. As long as he can pull songs like this off, he should do whatever on Earth he pleases.
Of course, "You Tell Me" kicks in and is the first clunker on the album. Thankfully there are few clunkers.
Next up is the truly silly "Mr. Belamy" - and what glorious silliness it is. This is another one of the ideas that clearly wouldn't have made it past the producer on Chaos and Creation, but the idea of writing a song about a cat stuck up a tree - from the perspective of the cat somehow really works. It's quirky, with odd instrumental flourishes, but somehow Paul can manage it without it ending up being a joke on him. In a way, this song feels like a sequel to his song "Back on my Feet" - the song about an old curmudgeon who knows he will die alone and doesn't really care because he lives life on his own terms. In this case the cat is steadfast in his desire to be alone and work on his plans and doesn't need anyone else. (As some in comments have pointed out - Paul has denied that this song is in fact about a cat - despite that it's hard to heard the song any other way for me)
"Gratitude" is another song best skipped - it's not really bad, but not as good as what precedes it or what follows.
Next up is the song-cycle. It's not really a medley, since the songs basically just have no breaks between them. Saying this is a medley is like saying that The Beatles (aka "The White Album") is a medley. Of course, most of the songs are on a common theme - a rough story of Paul's life. He starts off with a spirited defense of his age - and again I can see the idea of comparing himself to old clothing being rejected on Chaos - and it's too bad. The song has a great drive to it, and a real wit to the lyrics that was largely missing from Chaos.
Then there's "That Was Me" - which starts off as a nice recap of his life with oblique references to his youth and times with the Beatles - but gets interesting in the later half when he starts screaming the lyrics ala "Oh! Darling". He's nearly 65, and his voice can still manage that!
Next up is "Feet in the Clouds" another nice song about fighting the conventions and expectations - another defense of himself. It wouldn't work all that well, except for how he somehow twists the song with an odd twist on a Brian Wilson-esque harmony with himself singing through a vocoder playing against himself. It sounds really wonderful and saves the song entirely.
Then there's "House of Wax", which truth be told, I like less than most who review the album. The song is good, the lyrics interesting, and the guitar work is inspired, but it doesn't really feel like it fits in the so-called medley. It's good - but in my view not the highlight of the album.
Then there's "The End of the End". Here's another song with Paul explicitly talking about his mortality - and him audaciously trying comparing himself to his own song "The End" with one of his most famous lyrics - "and in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take". Scarily, this new song holds up even with such expectations. This song is truly beautiful.
To cap out the album there's "Nod Your Head" - a very silly false ending to the album. I must agree that there should be a bit of a silence gap between "End of the End" and this, but I rather like this silly bit of noise. The lyrics are extremely silly, and appropriate for once.

Anyway, overall, this album doesn't quite unseat "Flaming Pie" from my position as favorite solo album by Paul, but it's a good competition. I can't imagine any other album coming out this year being this good - and yes, I will be picking up the deluxe edition on Tuesday. I want Paul to keep on making albums that remind us that the genius that was one-half of the greatest song-writing pair in history is still alive and well.

Grade: A

(note: I've listened to the album a few dozen times at this point, so I feel pretty secure in my evaluation at this point)

3 Comments:

  • Mr Bellamy isnt about a cat, Paul has said that it is about a man.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 AM  

  • Well as I listened I though it would mean a recluse man in a top of a tower or something but I like the cat theory too.

    My impressions are much like yours, except I think "You Tell Me" is pretty. Now how in Earth did Dance Tonight get to be the first single! Or EPP for that matter.

    Favourite one Only Mama Knows \m/

    By Anonymous Julie Ciccarini, at 5:52 PM  

  • In truth, I had/have heard that Paul denies Mr. Belamy being about a cat - and I'm likely just hearing "cat" because the first review of the album I read was pretty explicit in being about a cat and thus that's all I can hear now. However, it REALLY sounds like the song is about a cat doggedly (pun intended) stuck up a tree. Isn't it great that Paul is able to write actually ambiguous lyrics? This is a "bit" of an improvement over writing lines like "I knew a cat with a machine in his head - the man who fed him said he didn't feel any pain. I'd like to see him take that machine, and put it in his own head - if you know what I mean".
    As for "You Tell Me" - it is pretty, but compared to the rest of the album (save for "Gratitude"), it just isn't enough. "Distractions" off of Flowers in the Dirt is also pretty - but it also bores me.
    The single choices are downright bizarre - but I can follow the logic for "Ever Present Past". It sounds like a single - unlike anything else on the LP, except perhaps for "Only Mama Knows" and maybe "See Your Sunshine". The other tracks are too quirky to be a single or don't work as standalone songs.
    Keep in mind though, Paul has a habit of downright bizarre choices for singles - witness the singles of "Freedom" (one of his all time worst songs for a single), "Say Say Say", "Ebony and Ivory", "Silly Love Songs", "My Love", "Jenny Wren" (I actually like this song, but it's not really a good choice for a single). Don't even get me started at the downright idiocy (in his past) over what tracks get on the LPs and what gets relegated to near-impossible to find b-sides or c or d-sides. Witness such lost or nearly lost treasures such as "I'll Give You A Ring", "Ode To A Koala Bear", "Big Boys Bickering", the 7" Mix of "Figure Of Eight", "Comfort of Love", "Kicked Around No More", and the slightly less hard to find "Back On My Feet", "Loveliest Thing", "The Mess", "I Lie Around", and so on and so forth.
    Bottom line - Paul is a nightmare to collect!
    As for "Only Mama Knows" - it's hard to argue against your view - the song is truly incredible. However, so is "Mr. Belamy", and most of the song cycle...

    Anyway, as I said before, it's a really great LP no matter which way one looks at it.

    By Blogger Jim Casaburi, at 7:41 PM  

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