The Unbearable Lightness of Paul 

Paul McCartney is the most celebrated and ridiculed musician of our time. Generally, he’s celebrated for what he used to be (a driving force behind The Beatles, the most successful and acclaimed band in recording history) and ridiculed for what he subsequently turned into (a self-satisfied, thumbs-up peddler of sugary, greeting-card ditties). Of course, both notions about Macca are knee-jerk stereotypes, and real life is never as simple as a stereotype.

What is most clear about McCartney, as he returns with his 21st album, Memory Almost Full, launches a new record-selling partnership with Starbucks, and rebounds from a nasty breakup with second wife Heather Mills, is how damaged he was by his association with The Beatles.

On the face of it, that sounds like an absurd statement. After all, McCartney was always the one who derived the most fulfillment from the Fabs. He called the shots for the second half of their career, dominated their singles from 1966 on, and thrived in the collaborative, competitive group environment in a way that George Harrison, and even John Lennon, toward the end, couldn’t.

Harrison and Lennon were eager to abandon the band while McCartney desperately clung to his increasingly fractious gang. But, on a deeper level, McCartney’s association with the world’s most beloved ensemble has caused him much more grief than it ever did for his bandmates. Because The Beatles were regarded as spokesmen for their generation — a role that McCartney didn’t seek but never explicitly rejected either — McCartney was always judged against the work of peers who met that standard: Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, etc.

Aside from being born during World War II and loving the pioneering rock ’n’ roll of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly, Macca shared next to nothing with these icons. Any rational analysis would indicate that McCartney had much more in common with Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and even Barry Gibb. All of these songwriters were supreme tunesmiths, expert architects of three-minute pop songs. In every case, their melodic and harmonic gifts were accompanied by an utter lack of feel for lyrics. Bacharach didn’t bother to try; Wilson usually farmed the assignment out to Mike Love or an artsier acquaintance like Van Dyke Parks; Wonder used outside lyricists, and penned some painfully awkward verses when left to his own devices; King belatedly gave it a shot after a decade of writing with husband Gerry Goffin, and her granola lyrics were a chronic weakness of her solo work; and Gibb, with a few exceptions, approached lyrics as syllables primarily designed to fit the shape of his elegant tunes.

No one expected Bacharach to write anthems that gave inspiration to the counter-culture. No one complained that King or Gibb failed to bring poetic coherence to the seismic changes affecting America in the ’60s and ’70s. For that matter, few critics fretted that Duke Ellington classics such as “Satin Doll” or “In a Sentimental Mood” contained lyrics that failed to match up to the music.

Like Ellington, McCartney was/is a melodic savant with a finely-tuned ear for arrangement. But rock critics tend to focus excessive attention on words (partly because lyrics are easier to write about than music, and partly because so many rock critics are English majors) and McCartney, simply because he’d once written songs with John Lennon, has consistently faced media hostility for not being sufficiently politically incisive or iconoclastic.

McCartney’s first two solo albums, the homemade McCartney and the lush, pastoral Ram, rank among the best pop albums of the early 1970s, but they were both brutally trashed by critics upon their release. His ex-bandmates didn’t help much either. Lennon pegged McCartney as “rubbish,” while Ringo Starr said he didn’t hear “a single tune” on Ram (Starr apparently missed gems such as “Back Seat of My Car” and “Too Many People”). Stung by critical rejection of music he’d crafted with great confidence, McCartney was thrown off balance for a couple of years, and never fully regained the creative swagger so evident on Revolver or Abbey Road.

It’s undeniable that McCartney, insecure about his post-Beatles place in the pop marketplace, frequently pandered to the tastes of the times (the disco underpinnings of “Silly Love Songs” and “Goodnight Tonight”) and tended to settle for dummy lyrics that Lennon might have helped him clean up years earlier. And his pot-fueled ego has often revealed itself in a lack of concision. For instance, he could’ve written the slight “Let ’Em In” with The Beatles, but he would have never dared to stretch its simple conceit to five minutes.

Nonetheless, a scroll through McCartney’s catalog over the 37 years since The Beatles broke up reveals more top-notch material than he’s generally credited for. Band on the Run, Ram, McCartney, Venus and Mars, Tug of War, and Flowers in the Dirt all hold up well, and his run over the last decade (Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and Memory Almost Full) is the most consistent stretch of productivity we’ve seen from him since The Beatles split. And those willing to wade through the soft-focus laziness of his lesser efforts can find overlooked classics such as “Tomorrow,” “Girls’ School,” “Footprints,” and “The Lovers That Never Were.”

Critics are often guilty of reviewing a person instead of their work, and nowhere is that more evident than in the comparative treatment accorded McCartney and Brian Wilson. By any standard, McCartney has produced a much sturdier collection of songs than Wilson since the early ’70s. But Wilson’s genius is never questioned, because he’s viewed as a fragile artist battling mental illness. McCartney, on the other hand, is regarded as a smug and calculating accountant, presenting a false, easy-going cheerfulness to the world, while behind closed doors he’s a demanding taskmaster.

If critics have tended to evaluate McCartney’s persona more than his music (one brutal review of 1997’s Flaming Pie mocked him for writing songs on family vacations, as if that had anything to do with the quality of the material), that might explain why the notices for his new Memory Almost Full have been so laudatory. Because he’s enduring a painful divorce and approaching senior-citizen status, McCartney is newly sympathetic to reviewers. Many of them are praising Memory by suggesting that it’s reminiscent of his ’70s work with Wings. In truth, beyond the thumping rocker “Only Mama Knows” (which feels like “Junior’s Farm” morphed with “Soily”) little of this music recalls Wings. What’s fascinating is that Wings comparisons, which were once the music-biz equivalent of a scarlet letter, are now widely seen as compliments.

McCartney is paying more attention to his lyrics these days, and the mildly clever wordplay of “Ever Present Past,” which finds him too burdened with work to fulfill his duties in bed, perfectly suits the bubbly new-wave bounce of the track. He also scores with the baroque character study, “Mr. Bellamy” and most of a nostalgic suite that dominates the second half of the disc. On the other hand, his fraying vocal cords betray him on the lame pseudo-gospel ballad, “Gratitude,” and the reflective “You Tell Me.” The album’s climactic track is “The End of the End,” which finds pop’s most stubborn optimist pondering his own death.

This song was obviously meant to be deeply moving, but something about it leaves me cold. Hearing McCartney recite his instructions for his own send-off, I hear a control freak trying to micro-manage his funeral like it’s a record-store promotional event.

But being a control freak has served McCartney pretty well over the years, so there’s little reason to change now. 

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