Well, look at that. I’m 33.
Apologies and thanks to everyone for understanding – I really needed that week off. My gracious appreciation to everyone who wrote me with well-wishes, particularly those I haven’t written back yet. I’m working on finding the time, I promise.
I usually think of birthdays in terms of people I’ve outlived. I know, that’s incredibly morbid, and all it does is make me feel old, and I really should knock it off. A couple of years ago, I passed Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin pretty much all at once. (Jimi and Janis were 27 when they died, and Cobain was 28, but only by a couple of months.) This year it’s Jesus – he was 33 when the Romans hung him from a tree, if I remember correctly.
And next year, it’s Elliott Smith. God, that is depressing. On to happier things.
Mine wasn’t the only birthday to happen during my week off – my favorite album of all time, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, turned 40 on June 2. I can still remember the first time I heard the album straight through, in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. I was 15 years old, and while I’d heard music before, even great music, that was the first time I really understood what it could be. Just about everything else I’ve ever listened to has been various shades of disappointing in comparison to that first brush with the Beatles.
Why do I love it so much? For starters, I’m a melody addict. I’m fascinated and enthralled by soaring, swooping, sublime melodies, and Sgt. Pepper is full of them. I’m also a fan of the complete album statement – I hate it when bands churn out one or two good tunes and pack the rest of their records with tossed-off fluff. Even the deep cuts on Sgt. Pepper, potential throwaways like “Good Morning, Good Morning” and “Lovely Rita,” are immaculately composed and produced. It was arguably the first album-length conceptual piece in pop music history, too – I love Revolver, but it’s just a collection of songs, whereas Sgt. Pepper is a journey.
I’m also a fan of difficult music, in every sense of the word. Every time I listen to Sgt. Pepper, I have to remind myself that at the time, this was an album by the most popular band in the world. Aside from the fact that, due to the fragmentation and individualization of popular culture, no band will ever equal the Beatles’ worldwide status again, there is literally no world-famous, top-selling act that would dare drop an album like this one. It’s a tough sell, particularly its loopier passages (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), and it was astonishingly expensive for its time, too.
The music itself is difficult, too – complex and intricately arranged. Had there ever been a song like “A Day in the Life,” the rich suite that closes the record? For all that, it’s a remarkably silly album, full of stories about carnivals and meter maids and friends helping friends sing on key. The goofiness sometimes leaves you ill-prepared for the prickly little surprises, like the casual domestic abuse chronicled in “Getting Better,” but overall, it’s a delightfully sweet album of near-nonsense.
One of the finest examples of that nonsense is “When I’m Sixty-Four,” Sir Paul McCartney’s clarinet-jazz paean to growing old. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me,” McCartney asks, and I can’t have been alone in wondering whether he’d still be around at 64, and whether, in fact, we’d still need him.
Turns out, despite all the “Paul is dead” rumors floating around through the years, Sir Paul is still very much alive, and yes, we still need him. McCartney has a few days left before he turns 65 (on June 18), and he spent much of his 64th year writing and recording his 22nd post-Beatles pop album, called Memory Almost Full. (I didn’t include the classical stuff, or his techno trips as the Fireman, or Liverpool Sound Collage – if you do, it’s closer to 30 records.) For those of you wondering what Paul might sound like when he’s 64, well, here it is.
And as it happens, he sounds remarkably like he’s 25.
Memory Almost Full is the rare album by a senior citizen that makes me feel young – McCartney is nearly twice as old as I am, and he sounds energized, even youthful here. It’s another in a string of late-career records from Sir Paul that has not only resurrected his solo career, artistically speaking, it’s revitalized it. He’s still nowhere near as good as he was in the Lennon/McCartney days, but Memory Almost Full sounds like something he could have made during the Wings days – a far cry from mid-period twaddle like Pipes of Peace.
That said, it comes off for me like a bit of a step back from 2005’s brilliant Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, even though McCartney used a similar process to record it. Once again, he played nearly every instrument by himself, and once again, the result is anything but canned. But where Chaos was mostly a mid-tempo meditation, Memory is a full-fledged pop-rock album, with all the pros and cons that have attended McCartney’s pop-rock albums since the Fab Four dissolved.
It opens with one of those cons, a mandolin-fueled trifle called “Dance Tonight” that a songwriter with McCartney’s chops should have left on the rehearsal room floor. It’s a warm introduction, though – “Everybody gonna dance tonight,” he promises, and with the next song, he gives them all something to dance to. “Ever Present Past,” the first single, is an unqualified winner, a hopeful and thankful look back at a full life. (More on this theme in a moment.) The bridge section (“It went by, it went by in a flash…”) is my favorite moment here, one that’s been stuck in my head more than a few times this month.
But where Chaos was an organic, piano-and-guitar album, Memory has more of the cheesy synths that McCartney has loved for most of his solo career. “See Your Sunshine” is a bit of a Todd Rundgren-esque soul ballad, complete with an awful electric piano sound, and many of Memory’s other tracks suffer from overly synthetic orchestration. “Only Mama Knows” starts off like the worst of the lot, burbling to life with synthetic strings, but it soon crashes into the most convincing rocker here.
Producer David Kahne gives McCartney a much freer rein than Chaos producer Nigel Godrich did, and it results in a few maudlin pieces like “Gratitude,” but it also allows him to create perhaps his loopiest solo song, “Mr. Bellamy,” a radio play about a crazy old man in a tree. (I think.) Kahne also indulges Sir Paul’s penchant for suites – the back half of Memory runs together, Abbey Road-style, into an interconnected musing on mortality. The heart of the album is here, too, and it sums up everything I’ve loved about McCartney’s work through the years.
Here are the album’s best songs, including the shuffle “That Was Me,” which finds McCartney wistfully looking back at high points in his life – appearing in a school play, gigging at the Cavern Club. “House of Wax” is a beautifully cryptic dirge about death, which features a fine, dramatic crescendo, Paul in probably the finest voice I’ve heard him in since Flowers in the Dirt. And “The End of the End” is just amazing, really – a ballad that strips away the cryptic and stares death in the face. It’s the only time I can think of that Macca has really addressed his own death in song, and as you’d expect, he’s nothing but grateful for his time on Earth:
“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…”
It’s so warm, so gorgeous, that it seems like a shame to end the album with “Nod Your Head,” a throwaway track that is this album’s “Her Majesty.” But I can forgive McCartney wanting to send us out on a joyful note – Memory Almost Full is good old Paul having a grand old time, and writing some excellent songs in the process, and it’s just not like him to end things with a funeral. We need the afterparty, the celebration of life.
A funny story – the one time I’ve ever been physically threatened over something I’ve written was when I gently trashed Flaming Pie, McCartney’s 1997 album, in Face Magazine. Some guy actually came to our offices to beat me up for talking smack about what was obviously one of his favorite records of that year, and at the time, I didn’t quite understand the devotion. But looking back, Flaming Pie was the start of this remarkable renaissance, this late-career explosion of near-greatness from McCartney, and he hasn’t looked back since.
And while Memory Almost Full is not quite the revealing portrait of genius that Chaos and Creation was, it is so much better than anything I thought we’d be getting from Paul McCartney at this point in his career. As well as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has aged, it’s almost more remarkable how well its co-author has gracefully grown older. Yes, Paul, we’ll still be sending you a valentine, and birthday greetings. Here’s to many more – both years, and records like this one.
* * * * *
If I needed more proof that the boys in Marillion don’t know a good thing when they have it, I got some this week. I have pledged to support this band through thick and thin, since they’ve made so much great music over the years. So even though their 14th album, Somewhere Else, is sub-par, I bought the new single, a double a-side of “Thankyou Whoever You Are” and “Most Toys,” to aid their quest for another top 10 chart placement.
For the first time in years, the band has included original b-sides on this single, which is available in three formats. (I bought all three.) And one of them, “Circular Ride,” is what I’ve been waiting for – the first excellent song to come out of these sessions. It’s a great, catchy, dramatic pop tune, and it blows away all the so-called hit singles that weigh down the first half of Somewhere Else. It is the first Marillion song I’ve heard this year that I genuinely love.
So, to recap: the band has now officially released the three worst songs from Somewhere Else as radio singles, including the abysmal “See It Like a Baby,” all the while keeping a winner like “Circular Ride” under wraps and off the album. It’s a better single than any of the three they’ve tried to sell to radio, and it’s buried, wasted as a b-side. Seriously, guys, what the hell?
Okay, rant over. We’re back to a weekly schedule, and next week, a random look at some of the gems from the past two weeks, along with the new Polyphonic Spree album, The Fragile Army.
See you in line Tuesday morning.