REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/31/2010
There's an exchange between Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in the movie Bull Durham that has always stuck with me. In the scene, Robbin's character prevails on Crash Davis to answer why “You don't like me.” Costner's response goes as follows: “You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-Of-Fame arm, but you're pissing it away.”
Let's face it, don't we have that same perception of Paul McCartney? Today, his writing partner of the Glory Years is practically a deity. It was Lennon who was the tortured soul, it was Lennon who could define what made us human, it was Lennon who was the true artiste. Paul was the man who wrote the silly love songs with the catchy melodies. Over the years, McCartney has been saddled with such a reputation due to the simple fact he is still present and active. Whereas Lennon's career represented untapped potential because it was ended prematurely, Paul has been a solo artist three times as long as he was a Beatle. That means there has been a much greater span for people to forget just how good he was capable of being.
Paul was the first to strike in the aftermath of The Beatles with McCartney, a scattershot record that was both charming and bewildering. At the time, there was a general consensus of “Really? Is this the best you could come up with?” But the man had just left the pressure cooker that was The Beatles! Give Macca some time to decompress, relax, smoke some pot with Linda and get back to the business of being a former Beatle.
McCartney had been the work of one man, existing as both an artistic emancipation from The Beatles as well as a sort of musical therapy. With the first step truly encapsulating a “solo” record, the next phase would have to include the use of outside musicians. And so, the McCartneys found themselves on their way to NYC, the site where Paul would recruit some new blood and record the album that would eventually be titled Ram.
While the homespun niceties of McCartney aren't completely done away with on Ram, it would be a mistake to label the record as McCartney II. There is a definite edge to much of the material on Ram that simply wasn't there on his debut record. Perhaps the acrimonious breakup of the Fab Four finally had settled in; perhaps Macca simply wanted to rock out. Whatever the case, there is a bitterness and even a hint of rage present on the opening track “Too Many People” that indicated McCartney was pissed off at somebody/something.
The semi-irritating trend that did continue over from McCartney is the handful of vapid mini-tunes. The title track for instance isn’t some terrible slight against rock ‘n’ roll, but it begs the question of just why the hell it is on the album. There’s nothing there that’s interesting or thought-provoking; it would seem to be the very definition of filler. Actually, I take that back; the true definition is the minute-long reprise of “Ram On” tacked on at the end of the record.
But if you’re looking for the perfect encapsulation of McCartney’s solo escapades, it’s the hit single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” No one can deny the musicianship and the inherently appealing quality of the track. There’s no shame in admitting that I’ve caught myself whistling the “Hands Across The Water” reprise numerous times over the last few weeks. I also can’t deny that the following sounds incredibly snobbish and elitist; but what’s the point?!? Paul McCartney was blessed with the “Hall-Of-Fame arm,” the ability to be one of the greats, a pinnacle he did indeed reach if but for a short time. The man could wake up and write a hit song within five minutes -- while making breakfast I’m quite sure. Is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Hasley” really the work of a man trying his absolute hardest?
The maddening, tear-your-hair out moment comes when Ram finishes spinning, and you look back over the entire experience. There is some great music here. The aforementioned “Too Many People” gathers steam quickly before exploding into a series of wailing solos near the end; the track is easily the best rock song McCartney had written since “Get Back.” The remastered edition has added “Another Day” to the tracklist, McCartney’s first hit post-Beatles and a disarmingly cheery tune about the drudgery of everyday life for the modern, working woman. And finally, the melodramatic, Broadway leanings of “Back Seat Of My Car” hit home every single time.
Therein lies the great contradiction in trying to critically look at Paul McCartney post-Beatles. We knew he was capable of greatness. We know because it’s still being played on the radio today. But these ensuing decades have undeniable eroded away at his reputation, if just slightly. How many of the other greats could brilliantly express the young, teenage angst of “Back Seat Of My Car,” but at the same time churn out the inane ramblings of “Monkberry Moon Delight”? It doesn’t matter that The Beatles wrote plenty of terrible songs; in the minds of the public and rock world they are ironclad and untouchable. The solo career of Paul McCartney is a man trying to once again spin straw into gold. Never mind the fact that when he was on, he was as good – if not better – than anyone else. McCartney stood no chance of following The Beatles. He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.