Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"The love that you take..."

"At the end of the end,
It's the start of a journey to a much better place,
And this wasn't bad
So a much better place
Would have to be special,
No need to be sad..."

Paul Is Dead? Never, of course.
Neither physically, from 1966 when he "blew his mind out in a car" - an alleged accident that the remaining Beatles, like almost-master-criminals, couldn't help but keep on alluding to in clues in subsequent cover art, ruining any cover-up.

Nor symbolically, even ever since that elusive moment in 1970 when he took it upon himself to break up The Beatles (or, that is, took upon himself the blame for breaking up The Beatles), and ever thus doomed himself to years of sneering - either at the hands and bitter tongue (early on) of John Lennon himself, or much more dully those aggressively assuming that John was the tough'n'talented one, Paul the cute'n'soppy sentimentalist, utterly ignoring his avant-garde experimentalism and imaginative drive to keep the Fab Four flying even as John and Cyn, or then John and Yoko, sunk into Surrey druggy opulence.

(Not that I'm knocking John's genius and achievements at all, either, just keen to emphasise a better balance beyond those all-too-cheap and simple sniggers of "Frog Chorus, anyone?" which ignore the fact it's just a whimsical children's song and, taking or leaving the "Bom-bom-bom" backing, a really rather lovely melody at that.)

But still, still, still: Sir Macca and death, or "death". It's a miserable thought.
And yet one which, in true trouper spirit, he hits head-on on new album, Memory Almost Full.

Every self-respecting (and otherwise-unrespected) newspaper office has a desktop/desk/drawerful of Blue Peter-esque obituaries just ready and raring to roll on the instant of the sad PA snap. But, thankfully, one I've never yet seen is one that will surely be buried, too-formal and forlorn, among the acres and days and apparent-aeons of more gushing outpourings of praise, when he finally goes. If he does. If he must. Must he?

Penultimate album track "End Of The End" suggests, sadly, yes. But still, unsadly, urges mourners to fulfil his dying wishes - for "jokes to be told, and stories of old to be rolled out like carpets", as his piano chords roll out underneath like "Let It Be" and a faintly-rising string section ventures decorously so far, and yet not too far.
Only good ol' Sir Macca Thumbsaloft, eh...?

James Paul McCartney, turning 65, kids and grandkids and wife and another wife, starting to ponder mortality but gracefully not giving up, as elsewhere he skitters sometimes chirpily and sometimes ruefully over those oh-so-many mini-memories packed tight into that apparently-almost-full entireity: the "at the scout camp, in the school play, spade and bucket, by the sea" to "sweating cobwebs, under contract, in the cellar, on TV" of smirking-shrugging-shoulders "That Was Me", for example.

So much McCartney, he can't help but hearken back, whether lyrically or musically to his ever-present past. So what if comics may mock those Wings that could never quite beat quite so big as The Beatles: faux-beloved of Alan Partridge as "only the band The Beatles could have been", and scorned by most rock scribes until recent reassessments, as the authentic Seventies supergroup joins ELO and Supertramp in the iTunes playlists of the Feeling, Fratellis and their followers.

But Macca was ever the most melodic, and indeed influential both on and of such proto-power-poppers. And even when most questing or, actually perhaps, indecisive in his musical approaches - the ramshackle thrashing of Back To The Egg (1979), beepy noodling of McCartney II (1980), shimmery, synthesised pairing with 10cc's Eric Stewart on Press To Play (1987) or bittersweet bolshiness semi-fuelled by Elvis Costello for Flowers In The Dirt (1989) - there are at least flickers, or often enough belting flashes, of his it-all-comes-too-easy instinct for a tune, the tune.

The same enough goes even for his underwhelming 1990s, when each new album would be devoured - here at least - and the most sumptuous tracks would soon stand out: the tremors of somehow-neglected 1976-vintage "Warm And Beautiful" in skeletally-gorgeous 1993 album track "Golden Earth Girl", or the rolling, mostly-instrumental "Heather" (who she?) from 2001's otherwise-muddy Driving Rain, or either one or other or both of Jude-esque "Beautiful Night" or Blackbird-y "Calico Skies" from four-years-previously's too-blandly-bluesy Flaming Pie. In support of both of which albums he did, of course, hit the world for six sixes in the shape of his heartstring-bludgeoning live shows (Earls Court can seldom before, nor since, have felt so stridently the centre of God's greenish earth.)

Even the four originals included among the rock'n'roll curios recorded, all-in-a-quick-week's-work, for Run Devil Run, happily married modernish-enough production standards with casual raucousness with Wingsy pop nous-and-a-half: "Try Not To Cry", for example, could have been a companion-piece, standalone single around the time of 1973's undoubted-masterpiece Band On The Run - or at least giving "Daytime Nighttime Suffering" a damn good run for the "Helen Wheels" B-side placing. Do bands produce such dazzling B, even C-sides anymore? (Physical irrelevance of the format aside, of course...)

And yet Memory Almost Full feels, while the listener indulges, like he's doing it all over again, plucking here and there from his ever-present past yet spinning them a little more, older, wiser, anew. And sombrely, too. It was a surprise to discover a new Macca album, quite so soon - less than two years - after the last, 2005's sombre but superb Chaos And Creation In The Backyard: that late-period epic, forcibly pared down by erstwhile Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich despite the rather over-arching power and prestige of the richest man in rock music.

Especially since there seems to have been a little turbulence in our hero's domestic life since then - you may have gathered from a column inch or several thousand here or there.

Yet out of such chaos comes yet more creation, perhaps indeed inspiring such wistful ponderings as the aforesaid "That Was Me", or "Vintage Clothes" (both part of an Abbey Road-esque five-song suite in the second half), or indeed the portentous weirdness of "House Of Wax", a dark trundling tour around a nightmare.

Checking off the old-Macca nods would be easy, and yet too easy and restricting: "Mister Bellamy", for example, has the whimsical fun and what-the-fu...n?-ness of "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" right up until you really realise it's about a man threatening to throw himself from the top of a tall, tall building, while opener - and bright, breezy, yet probably not Top Ten-troubling single - "Dance Tonight" is 1993's "Hope Of Deliverance" all over again but even more gossamer-light and lovely (and, yes, the only one I've managed to master strumming so far.)

"Paul is quite a capable lyricist who doesn't think he is," said John, in the intriguing and expansive Playboy interviews not long before his death in 1980. Lennon had been especially taken by "The movement you need is on your shoulder" as McCartney rushed through an early demo of "Hey Jude", pressing for the line to remain there intact despite Paul's apologies. And while post-Beatle Macca has at times been sullied by such atrocities "I know I was a crazy fool, for treating you the way I did, / But something got a hold of me, and I acted like a dustbin lid" ("The Other Me", from 1982's Pipes Of Peace), Godrich had the wherewithal to insist two years ago that McCartney, yes even McCartney, ditch the more slapdash lines and come back with something better - resulting in both economy and occasional sly wittiness ("very twee, very me", in 2005's irresistible "English Tea").

Despite a change of producer this time, back to David Kahne of the too-often-dreary Driving Rain, such spareness seems to have survived - and in a positive, even or especially when emotionally-negative, way.Yes, there are awkward moments - signs that the ever-assured McCartney vocal is starting to crack a little under the strain of ageing, faltering on the falsettos of "You Tell Me" or a little too clumsy on the lower registers of over-glossed "Ever Present Past".

And while it might feel a little too over-wraught to end with "End Of The End", the bathetic minute-and-a-half of Macca-stompalong-by-numbers "Nod Your Head" follows in the clumpy and unsatisfying footsteps of "Rinse The Raindrops" (Driving Rain), "Party" (Run Devil Run) or the untitled "hidden" track dragging down the elegiac "Anyway" (Chaos and Creation...) Whatever happened to the closing grace of "Warm and Beautiful" or "Baby's Request", let alone a cheeky undercutting a la *cough* "Her Majesty"...?

Ah, these are minor matters against the, er, majesty of Macca revitalised. Time alone, of course, will tell whether this, and companion-piece Chaos And Creation... will quite endure like Band On The Run and Tug Of War or Flowers In The Dirt - let alone like Rubber Soul or Revolver or some sergeant's obscure album that came out 40 years ago on Friday - but the prospects seem richly promising right now. Certainly that man Macca seems to simply seep quality songwriting, musicianship and inventiveness as easily and freely as water gushing gloriously from a well. And surprisingly superbly so. Even now. Especially now.

Long may he last. To live and not die.


Dr. Deb said...

Aidan, what a great post. I am a huge BEatles fan. Got to see Paul just last year in concert.

Lyndon said...

Super piece - loved reading it. Actually reading this has made me go back to "chaos and creation" rather than exploring the new one. There are quite a few I'll skip through, but Fine Line, Too Much Rain, English Tea and Waiting For Your Friends To Go are fantastic and, like you say, sound so effortless.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I used to really like the Beatles...until I met McCartney and he threw a bucket of water over me and a photographer and told us that he hoped we died of cancer.

I can be quite annoying sometimes, but I don't rape small children on a regular basis, so I thought that was a tad strong.

Aidan said...

That does indeed sound like the actions and emotions of a man who lost the love of his life to said disease. I'll keep on loving the man and the music, ta - above all else, above all so very else, that music.