Allusion to the digital world though it may be, there's a sweet, elegiac undercurrent to the title of Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full, an acknowledgement that it was written and recorded when McCartney was 64, the age he mythologized on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released almost exactly 40 years before Memory. Certainly, McCartney has mortality on the mind, but this isn't an entirely unusual occurrence for him in this third act of his solo career. Ever since his wife Linda's death from cancer in 1998, he's been dancing around the subject, peppering Flaming Pie with longing looks back, grieving by throwing himself into the past on the covers album Run Devil Run, slowly coming to terms with his status as the old guard on the carefully ruminative Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. But if that previous record was precise, bearing all the hallmarks of meticulous producer Nigel Godrich, Memory Almost Full is startlingly bright and frequently lively, an album that embraces McCartney's unerring gift for melody. Yet for as pop as it is, this is not an album made with any illusion that Paul will soon have a succession of hit singles: it's an art-pop album, not unlike either of the McCartney albums. Sometimes this is reflected in the construction --- the quick succession of short songs at the end, uncannily (and quite deliberately) sounding like a suite -- sometimes in the lyrics, but the remarkable thing is that McCartney never sounds self-consciously pretentious here, as if he's striving to make a major statement. Rather, he's quietly taking stock of his life and loves, his work and achievements. Unlike latter-day efforts by Johnny Cash or the murky Daniel Lanois-produced albums by Bob Dylan, mortality haunts the album, but there's no fetishization of death. Instead, McCartney marvels at his life -- explicitly so in the disarmingly guileless "That Was Me," where he enthuses about his role in a stage play in grammar school with the same vigor as he boasts about playing the Cavern Club with the Beatles -- and realizes that when he reaches "The End of the End," he doesn't want anything more than the fond old stories of his life to be told.
This matter-of-fact acknowledgement that he's in the last act of his life hangs over this album, but his penchant for nostalgia -- this is the man who wrote the sepia-toned music hall shuffle "Your Mother Should Know" before he was 30, after all -- has lost its rose-tinted streak. Where he once romanticized days gone by, McCartney now admits that we're merely living with "The Ever Present Past," just like how although we live in the present, we still wear "Vintage Clothes." He's no longer pining for the past, since he knows where the present is heading, yet he seems disarmingly grateful for where his journey has taken him and what it has meant for him, to the extent that he slings no arrows at his second wife, Heather Mills, he only offers her "Gratitude." Given the nastiness of the coverage of his recent divorce, Paul might be spinning his eternal optimism a bit hard on this song, but it isn't forced or saccharine -- it fits alongside the clear-eyed sentiment of the rest of Memory Almost Full. It rings true to the open-heartedness of his music, and the album delivers some of McCartney's best latter-day music. Memory Almost Full is so melodic and memorable, it's easy to take for granted his skill as a craftsman, particularly here when it feels so natural and unforced, even when it takes left turns, which it thankfully does more than once. Best of all, this is the rare pop meditation on mortality that doesn't present itself as a major statement, yet it is thematically and musically coherent, slowly working its way under your skin and lodging its way into your cluttered memory. On the surface, it's bright and accessible, as easy to enjoy as the best of Paul's solo albums, but it lingers in the heart and mind in a way uncommon to the rest of his work, and to many other latter-day albums from his peers as well. [The deluxe edition of Memory Almost Full contains a live DVD, extra packaging, and bonus tracks, including an interview with McCartney about the album, plus three new songs: the pleasant-enough instrumental "In Private," the quite good, mildly brooding pop tune "Why So Blue," and the amiably ambling throwaway instrumental "222."]