Record Review

More Than Melody: Only McCartney Knows

Stuart Mitchner

"I’m in awe of McCartney,” Bob Dylan said in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “He’s about the only one I’m in awe of. He can do it all. And he’s never let up. He’s got the gift for melody …. Everything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in melody.”

Something has got to be right with the world when Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are still standing, still composing and singing, and still making extraordinary records in their mid-sixties. They’re as old now as the 20th century was when McCartney was singing “Yesterday” and Dylan was singing “Like a Rolling Stone.”

There are songs on the new McCartney album, Memory Almost Full, released through Starbucks’ Hear Music imprint, that should awe anyone who has traveled the long and winding and sometimes bumpy road of Sir Paul’s 37-year post-Beatles career. Put “Only Mama Knows” on your stereo with the sound way up and 2007 becomes 1967, the miasma of Bush’s America is blown clear, and the Beatles are still the Beatles.

How big were the Beatles? Whenever I think I’m guilty of overstating their global impact, along comes something like the DVD Paul McCartney in Red Square. Okay, so maybe Russian writers and musicians and intellectuals who grew up behind the Iron Curtain are also somewhat overstating the case when, like sociologist Artemy Troitsky, they say flat out that the Beatles “have done more for the fall of Communism than any other western institution.” Maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin was just being diplomatic when he told Paul that his music was “like a gulp of freedom” and “an open window to the world,” an idea echoed by the man who opened that win- dow, Mikhail Gorbachev. And maybe it’s no big deal that hearing “Love Me Do” in 1963 changed Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s life, or that this same Ivanov who may succeed Putin as president learned English from listening to the Beatles. But anything seems possible after reading that the onetime oracle of Soviet repression, Izvestia, proclaimed after the May 2003 performance, “We have seen McCartney and now we can die.” When you watch the love and joy lighting up the faces of the Red Square masses (100,000 Russians, by most accounts), especially when Paul kicks into “Back in the U.S.S.R.” or leads them in singing the endless ending of “Hey Jude,” nothing really seems overstated at all.

More Than Melody

Dylan is right about McCartney’s gift, but the new record has more than mere melody going for it. Imagine what it must have been like to stand before immense crowds in Moscow and St. Petersburg (his concert there is included in the Red Square DVD), to be acclaimed as the living messenger of the hope and freedom embodied by the Beatles during the two-plus decades before the fall of the Soviet Union; imagine standing there singing the songs that you yourself wrote — ”Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” — songs that have become emotional anthems for millions. An experience of that magnitude is either going to send you into a happy retirement or intimidate you so much that you think “Enough, let it be” and stop recording. Luckily for the world, what happened was what happened: McCartney went home energized and inspired and almost immediately started writing and recording music charged with the residual electricity of the event. This is at least one of the forces driving Memory Almost Full, which, according to McCartney, was begun in the autumn following his springtime in Russia, and then was held up by the project that became his no less stunning 2005 album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

What Paul’s last two albums have that much of his solo work lacked is the sort of inspired passion he put into Beatles songs like “The End” on Abbey Road or “Helter Skelter” or “Penny Lane” (all of which were performed to roaring crowds in St. Petersburg). The dynamic that surfaced again in Band on the Run and Flaming Pie and in some other songs along the way is what makes “Only Mama Knows” one of the greatest accomplishments of McCartney’s incredible career. Even his sternest critics have had to admit that he’s one of rock’s greatest singers, along with being an almost uncannily inventive master of his instrument, the bass guitar (listen to what he does on “See Your Sunshine”). The singing and playing are movingly up front and in full force in this wild ride of a song with its brilliant pacing (stopping on the dime of a precipice and soaring off the edge) and a sense of drama and perfect timing that carries it through more changes (more moving parts in both senses of “moving”) than any McCartney composition I can recall. The way the story is framed proclaims its stature (Dylan does the same thing with his recent masterpiece, “Ain’t Talkin’”): it begins and ends with a rich, string-driven overture. If ending a song with an overture seems a contradiction in terms, it’s absolutely justified here, because the essence of the song is anticipatory longing — the aching, needful, drawn-out, furious longing of someone stranded in a “godforsaken place” (“the transit lounge of a dirty airport town”) desperate to move, but unable to; in case we miss the connection, the overture’s theme is repeated again behind the chilling high point (that precipice) when the stranded, orphaned, bereft, abandoned passenger tells himself “gotta hold on, gotta hold on.” The packaging between two gorgeous matching symphonic “overtures” creates an effect something like a rock and roll delirium exploding in the mind of someone who fell asleep listening to Debussy or Ralph Vaughan Williams. When the rock dream fades, merging perfectly with the symphonic manifestation of that “longing,” you may not know where you’ve been any more than the guy in the airport lounge does, but you know it’s a place very few pieces of contemporary music are capable of taking you.

In McCartney’s comments on the songs, which are provided on the album’s website, he says “Only Mama Knows” was conceived as a story and compares the writing of it to the writing of “Eleanor Rigby”: “I like to get into those imaginary stories and then just follow them through and become that character. So the lead character who’s singing is someone who was left by his mother, doesn’t know why she left him and doesn’t know if he’ll ever see his father’s face.”

Another ambitious story song on Memory Almost Full is “House of Wax,” which succeeds in communicating something like the sort of dark mysterious who-knows-what Dylan is evoking in the last three songs on Modern Times (including the aforementioned “Ain’t Talkin’”). One of the wonders of post-1960s music as it’s evolved through the work of artists like Dylan and McCartney is the way the right mixture of words and sounds can suggest a whole world of possibilities in the same three-to-five-min-ute song, ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic. It doesn’t matter what it means when lightning hits the House of Wax and “poets spill out on the street.” Take your choice, go for it: it could be the burning of the library at Alexandria or the fall of the Towers of Babylon or maybe the Capitol Records building in Hollywood. And just what is “hidden in the yard underneath the wall”? Does the singer really know that what’s “buried deep below a thousand layers” is “the answer to it all”? When the power of the music wraps itself around those lines, who cares what it means? Maybe the lyrics are over the top, such as the one about women dancing in the streets “like wild demented horses.” In his notes, McCartney admits a fondness for “surreal lyrics.” It’s said that when Paul had doubts about the words to “Hey Jude” John Lennon had to give him a pep talk, convincing him that a line like “the movement is on your shoulder” was just right. Listen to the way Paul sings “wild demented horses” and you know that John Lennon would be proud of him. So would his late wife Linda and his late fellow Beatle, George.

Paul and Linda

McCartney has endured an enormous amount of criticism and downright ridicule regarding the turn his musical fortunes took after his marriage to Linda Eastman. People, including yours truly, have wondered why he had to be such a considerate mate. Why not indulge his wife with an occasional collaboration while sharing his more serious musical ventures with someone worthier, as he did once when joining forces with Elvis Costello? There’s a moment on the new album, at the opening of “See Your Sunshine,” when those of us who still cringe to remember some of the low points of the Paul-Linda years, get a bit nervous. Linda haunts that song, as she does several others. But then so do the other Beatles. They’re all in the music. And who can deny that the character of the man who made his marriage a true working partnership is the same character that makes him capable of producing albums like Chaos and Creation and Memory Almost Full at age 65, an inspiration to us all.

I haven’t done justice to the other songs. If you have Beatles music in your blood, you’ll love the ghost of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” in “My Ever Present Past” where the middle bit (“the things I think I did when I was a kid”) lifts you right out of yourself like the romp in the field to “Can’t Buy Me Love” in A Hard Day’s Night. The echoes are here and so is a nod to the medley McCartney pulled together on Side 2 of Abbey Road, the LP that saw a lot of us through the first years of the 1970s.

Two copies of the new CD are available at the Princeton Public Library; so is the DVD Paul McCartney in Red Square.

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