Melancholy man

Paul McCartney proves it’s hard work, being happy

Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full (Hear Music)
Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full (Hear Music)
Untitled Document Starbucks references have become an indie cliché, a form of slackerist shorthand whereby privileged whites rag on the economic class that spawned them. To invoke the Starbucks brand in a record review is to dismiss the music under consideration as yuppie pabulum: It goes down easily enough, but therein lies the problem. Starbucks music isn’t exactly synonymous with the soft-rock swill that pulses through waiting rooms and elevators, and it’s this very indeterminacy, what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences,” that troubles the insecure hipster. In other words, the irony clause permits — nay, encourages — a fondness for Neil Diamond; far more problematic is a fondness for Feist, who, despite her cred-boosting affiliations with Peaches and Broken Social Scene, just might wind up on your mom’s iPod next week. That Paul McCartney is the first artist to release an album on Hear Music, Starbucks’ new record label, makes all kinds of sense. Despite his status as the greatest bassist in the history of rock & roll and the songwriting genius responsible for “Eleanor Rigby, “For No One,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” McCartney is also a favorite target of hipsters (beginning with John Lennon, who once likened him to Engelbert Humperdinck). In all fairness, Sir Paul is eminently mockable. He’s sickeningly rich. He wrote “Freedom,” one of the most inane and indefensible songs written in the aftermath of 9/11. He married Heather Mills. Whereas Lennon died a martyr, poor Macca must soldier on to collect fresh humiliations. There is something both grotesquely comical and ineffably sad about the slow decline of a cutie-pie (c.f., Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Shirley Temple Black). His puppy-dog eyes are growing filmy, his baby-face mug a welter of fissures and pockets. The Cute One turned 65 this week, and time is finally catching up with him. Some have compared Memory Almost Full, McCartney’s latest album, to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, which is tempting — both are the work of old men confronting their own mortality — but ultimately absurd. Dylan was born old; McCartney seemed to linger for decades in a state of suspended adolescence. Although he was never the lightweight that his detractors have accused him of being, he certainly wrote his share of silly love songs (and at least one silly love song in defense of silly love songs). There was always something maddening about him, a kind of willful, almost Reaganesque imperviousness. Scratch the surface of that blinding optimism and you’d find sadness, disappointment, maybe even anger, but the surface was so dazzling that few bothered. With Memory Almost Full, you don’t have to dig very deep to find the melancholy core. It’s still a Paul McCartney album — all primitive rhymes and complex sonorities — but the darkness sluices through even the sunniest songs. Take “Dance Tonight,” the CD’s opening cut, a rudimentary ditty forged from a thudding kick drum and a zippy mandolin. The lyrics (“Everybody gonna dance tonight/ Everybody gonna feel alright”) could have been written by an enterprising first-grader during recess, a what-the-hell effect that’s further confirmed by a whistling solo. Before long, though, minor chords sneak over a buzzy bridge, and all those blithe imperatives start sounding kind of desperate, the wishful thinking of a doomed man. “Gratitude,” a loosey-goosey gospel testimonial in the vein of “Hey Jude,” starts out like just another silly love song, and then all of its sweetness suddenly curdles: “I should stop loving you/ Think what you put me through/ But I don’t want to lock my heart away.” Being happy isn’t such a simple thing, he seems to be saying. You try it sometime. 
René Spencer Saller reviews new music for Illinois Times. Contact her at

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