By Mark Guarino
Of course the speculation about Paul McCartney’s latest album will be his recent high-profile divorce with animal rights activist and “Dancing With the Stars” reject Heather Mills.
Speculate no more.
“Memory Almost Full” (Hear Music), his 21st solo album, is hardly a bitter tirade or opportunity to settle scores. McCartney is too classy for either.
You may be seeing this album stocked near a certain coffee cash register or hearing it when you sip your double iced latte under a green awning this summer. That’s because McCartney made news months ago when he announced he would bypass typical music retailing conventions and release the new album via Starbucks, ending his career-long relationship with Capitol Records, the U.S. home for the Beatles since the beginning.
Which makes “Memory Almost Full” remarkable. Instead of tailoring the new album to suit the comfortable environs of a corporate coffee shop, McCartney has produced a set of strange, challenging and often dark new songs that keep nostalgia relegated to a far, dark corner.
McCartney has not sounded this obsessed in a long time. The intimacy of “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard” (Capitol), his last album shepherded by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, demonstrated that while McCartney is long stereotyped as a master of lighthearted pop whimsy, his hidden strength is with stark, more introspective fare. “Memory” is that album’s bookend: instead of mining quiet delicacies, he bangs out loud, and sometimes elaborately produced, rock songs, boasting big guitar riffs and twists that match his more youthful admirers.
Here, some new songs ably match the cornerstones of his previous work, such as “That Was Me” — borrowing from “I Got a Feeling” — and “Nod Your Head” — borrowing from “Live and Let Die.” Recorded partially with his touring band, there is less a Beatles influence on this album than there is Wings. Songs scale the heights set by 1970’s arena rock. On “House of Wax,” McCartney’s band takes their Pink Floyd moment, amid epic guitar work and crashing waves. More often than not, McCartney embraces a soul-scorching vocal style, “Gratitude,” with its horns and stomping piano, could easily be recorded by Al Green.
The casual Beatles fan will need to hear these songs repeatedly to let their peculiarities sink in. Songs like “Mr. Bellamy” and “Vintage Clothes” show just how experimental McCartney remains, even while turning 65 later this month. His album shows him at his carefree best but also eyeing the end. “End of the End” is a memo about his funeral wishes and “That Was Me” surveys snapshots from his life. “When I think that all this stuff/can make a life/it’s pretty hard to take it in,” he sings.
A breezy mandolin begins the album (“Dance Tonight”), demonstrating he can still pluck simple melodies and make them stick. The reward of “Memory” is not that it is almost full, but it is always full of such life.