An overlooked precursor to the current handmade-pop phenomenon, Ram was initially criticized for everything that makes it sound unexpectedly bold, fascinatingly unedited and utterly misjudged today.
The album, set for deluxe reissue on May 22, 2012 by Concord as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, moves with a guileless joy from the country-blues parody of “3 Legs” to the plucky reverie of “Ram On,” from the burping rockabilly riffs of “Smile Away” to the comfy domesticity of “Heart of the Country.” Imperfect but so very interesting, Ram is just as apt to indulge in the convoluted escapism of “Long Haired Lady,” as it is in the jokey doom’s-day howl of “Monkberry Moon Delight,” as it is in the Buddy Holly-inspired sexual innuendo of “Eat at Home.”
That said, for all of McCartney’s furious creativity, the loss of longtime writing partner John Lennon, not to mention Beatles producer George Martin, can be keenly felt at times. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” for instance, always seemed to miniaturize everything McCartney once strove for with Abbey Road, feeling more calculatedly twee than truly inspired, despite its episodic construction. Ultimately, no matter how many copies it sold as a single, this is Ram’s most obvious indulgence. The principal weakness that McCartney has always had, the one that the Beatles at their best seemed to so deftly obscure, is fully exposed: He’s so well aware of his own charm.
Worse still: How Ram is hampered, even now, by the long-forgotten sniping then engulfing McCartney and Lennon — from the haughty sermonizing of the opening track “Too Many People” to the rather silly conceit that his photographer wife was somehow stepping in for Lennon as collaborator, from the unselfconscious contempt of “Dear Boy” to the utterly unsubtle cover image of two beetles copulating.
At the time, for some reason, both of these former bandmates were making a habit of fighting their battles through the medium of music, and the albums were poorer for it. (As delicious as “How Do You Sleep?” might have been, for instance, it really didn’t jibe with the title-track sentiment of Lennon’s concurrent Imagine, you know?) McCartney and Lennon did their art, and their fans, a deep disservice by occasionally turning their songs into lines of fluttering dirty laundry, as if they didn’t understand that the records might actually transcend their era.
But Ram, like Imagine, survives even these missteps by sheer force of musical will. McCartney is, at this point, still bursting with post-Beatles ideas — and it gives this album a dizzying momentum. Even his stand-alone non-album efforts from the period, collected on the new reissue’s second disc, end up as interesting asides. “Another Day” is like a lesser “Penny Lane.” “Oh Woman, Oh Why” has always been blessedly, truly weird, with McCartney staring down the barrel of a pissed-off lady’s gun.
This album’s most intriguing moment remains “The Back Seat of My Car,” the soaringly constructed, yet desperately sad closing track on Ram. In keeping with the rest of this album, the song is a little unfocused — too overstuffed with ideas, too reliant on multi-tracked McCartneys, not as rustic as his solo debut and somehow tossed-off sounding anyway, simply too long — but yet still perfectly encapsulates everything that makes Ram such a wildly inventive gem: It’s gutsy and unprecious at one point and then a testament to Paul’s enduring pop sensibilities at others.
As McCartney bolts from 1950s-era rock to cocktail-lounge crooning to swooning violins, and back again — all inside of this one final track, mind you — there is a sense of limitless possibility. Ram, foreshadowing the quirky allure of today’s homespun singer-songwriter projects, certainly would have benefited from having someone else to bounce ideas off of, but its essential pop magnetism — its compulsively listenability — simply can’t be denied.
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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Paul McCartney. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
PAUL McCARTNEY – KISSES ON THE BOTTOM (2012): This is not just a love letter to a lost era of songmaking, but one of the most evocative, deeply ardent records that McCartney has ever issued. Working in a higher vocal range that remains largely untouched by age, or his rugged third-act touring schedule, the ex-Beatle stirs up a spectacular range of emotions: The hushed, crepuscular melancholy of Peter van Steeden’s “Home (When Shadows Fall)” is matched only by the stirring resolve found on Haywood Henry’s “Get Yourself Another Fool” from this now thrice-married soon-to-be-70-year-old. McCartney’s trembling rapture throughout Irving Berlin’s “Always” finds a balancing moment in his impish hat-tipping joy during Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Thcu-Ate The Positive.”
PAUL McCARTNEY AND WINGS – BAND ON THE RUN (1973; 2010 reissue): A terrific reissue that reveals this anew as the most personal of McCartney recordings — though, even now, the album’s unifying theme of escape is more subtle (and thus more commercial) than the blunt confessional style of his former partner John Lennon. McCartney, instead, uses broader storytelling brushstrokes — skillfully weaving his own desire to break free of the Beatles with the age-old myths of ne’er-do-wells, hitchhikers and outsiders. No McCartney effort yet has taken so many chances, nor so successfully blended his interests in the melodic, the orchestral, the rocking and the episodic. In keeping, of the Beatles solo recordings, Band on the Run always sounded the most to me like something the old band might have put together.
PAUL McCARTNEY – McCARTNEY (1970)/McCARTNEY II (1980; 2011 reissues): Taken together, these albums show a willingness to strip down what had become a varnished sound. After all, Paul was coming off huge productions in the form of 1969’s Abbey Road with the Beatles and 1979’s Back to the Egg with Wings. But there is a broad disparity, more pronounced than ever, in how these recordings have aged. McCartney comes off as more organic, a simpler expression — like someone trying to work out his own sound. McCartney II was, truth be told, fatally hobbled from the first by Paul’s own poor mechanics with the synthesizers he chose to experiment with throughout.
ON SECOND THOUGHT: PAUL McCARTNEY AND WINGS – BACK TO THE EGG (1979): It’s time to go back and reevaluate Paul McCartney and Wings’ unjustly ignored Back to the Egg. Released in May 1979, the album showcased a rebuilt Wings lineup, with lead guitarist Laurence Juber working in sharp counterpoint to Denny Laine. Also on board was co-producer Chris Thomas, a former assistant to George Martin for the Beatles’ White Album who brought an edgier style to much of the project — in keeping with his concurrent work with the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders. McCartney’s stated goal, back then, was to make a raw-boned rock record. And he largely succeeded, putting a bright charge into his sound after the soft-rock fluff of 1978’s London Town.