10 Years Ago: Paul McCartney Surprises with Deeply Personal ‘Memory Almost Full’
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Embroiled in a very public and nasty divorce, Paul McCartney might have been expected to do what Paul McCartney does: Hide behind a pastiche pop facade, or a series of homespun character studies – or both. Certainly, that’s what he did in the immediate aftermath of splits with the Beatles and then Wings.
Instead, Memory Almost Full arrived on June 5, 2007 with a few tantalizing glimpses of his real self amid the expected nostalgic reverie. The album is anchored, in fact, by a striking suite of songs that traversed the full scope of human existence, from childhood memories (“That Was Me”) to how we approach death (“The End of the End”). Elsewhere, quick-witted songs like “See Your Sunshine” – a Wings redo now shot through with x post facto grief – broke the mold of older albums that boasted more light than heat.
Alone again, he never shies away from the sense of finality that always travels with memory, even during French filmmaker Michel Gondry’s video for the mandolin-driven second single “Dance Tonight,” where McCartney ended up joining a group of ghostly apparitions for a light-hearted jam.
“There is quite a bit of retrospective stuff,” he admitted in a 2007 talk with the New York Times, “and looking at that, I thought, ‘Whoa, I wonder if there’s any particular reason?’ But then I thought, when I was writing ‘Penny Lane,’ that was me in my early 20s writing about when I was 15, 16. That’s retrospective. It’s a natural thing, I think, for a creative artist. Because the past, in a way, is all you have.”
That’s actually how Memory Almost Full came to be. At loose ends in his private life, and coming off a long-hoped-for collaboration with Nigel Godrich on 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, McCartney returned to a series of shelved songs recorded with his regular working band. This provided a backbone for the new album. Something clicked then, and McCartney was suddenly on a roll.
He completed Memory Almost Full with seven solo songs, to go with the six that he already had. In fact, five cuts – “Mr. Bellamy,” “Ever Present Past,” “Gratitude,” “Nod Your Head” and “In Private” – were put to tape on a single day in March 2006. Perhaps that’s why the album held together so well; emotionally, a lot of them were of a piece.
Listen to Paul McCartney Perform ‘Only Mama Knows’
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Still, this lengthy gestation period meant that Memory Almost Full covered a lot of narrative ground. Parts of it – in particular “Mr. Bellamy” – seemed like a divorce record, but McCartney tended to shy away from confirming this (or any other) lyrical intent.
“It’s a very sort of personal thing, divorce – and it’s something I’ve decided not to talk about in interviews,” McCartney told ABC’s Nightline in 2007. “I’m enjoying my music. You know, music is the great healer. … It was always something that saved you; it’s a great sort of therapy. A lot of writers I know will be having a bad day and will go off into the corner with a guitar and sort of write it out. I think it’s very helpful.”
Similar time alone found McCartney in ruminative place. The album title spoke both to our very modern age, and to someone who had travelled deep into remembrance. “Ever Present Past” copped to it, while “Only Mama Knows” tried to bully through it. Songs like “Vintage Clothes,” meanwhile, seemed to tap into narratives from his lengthy first marriage to the late Linda McCartney – and no one could blame McCartney for feeling wistful for that era. At the same time, however, “Gratitude” made clear that he remained very much in the moment.
“‘Gratitude’ is just me being grateful for the good stuff in my life, past and present,” he told the Times. “That’s the thing about me, when I talk about love, it’s often general; it’s not always specific. If people think these songs are specific to Linda, that wouldn’t be true. But they’re pertaining to Linda, or my children, or other things in life for which I feel grateful. So, she’s certainly in there.”
He added that he’d never intended to write a personal album, “but sometimes you can’t help what comes out. I’m a great believer in that.” This unexpected turn of events no doubt helped push Memory Almost Full to No. 3 on the Billboard chart. That was the highest debut for a Paul McCartney album in a decade.
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