Ram represents the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far. For some, including myself, Self-Portrait had been secure in that position, but at least Self-Portrait was an album that you could hate, a record you could feel something over, even if it were nothing but regret. Ram is so incredibly inconsequential and so monumentally irrelevant you can’t even do that with it: it is difficult to concentrate on, let alone dislike or even hate.
McCartney’s work in the Beatles was always schizoid. On the one hand there were the rockers: “She’s A Woman,” “I’m Down,” “If You Won’t See Me,” “Get Back,” and “Lady Madonna”; on the other, the ballads and the schmaltz, including (in descending order), “Hey Jude,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” “Taste of Honey” and “Till There Was You.” Ram fulfills all the promise of “Till There Was You” and loses touch with the entire remainder of McCartney’s own past. And it is so lacking in the taste that was one of the hallmarks of the Beatles that it strongly suggests Paul is not happy in his role as a solo artist, no matter how much he protests to the contrary.
The odd thing about it is that within the context of the Beatles, Paul’s talents were beyond question. He was perhaps the most influential white bass player of the late Sixties, the only one of the Beatles with a keenly developed personal instrumental style. He was also the group’s best melodist, and he surely had the best voice.
But, if it was Paul who used to polish up Lennon’s bluntness and forced him to adapt a little style, it is by now apparent that Lennon held the reins in on McCartney’s cutsie-pie, florid attempts at pure rock muzak. He was there to keep McCartney from going off the deep end that leads to an album as emotionally vacuous as Ram. Now left to their own devices, each has done what always came most naturally. Lennon has created a music of almost monomaniacal intensity and blunt style, while McCartney creates music with a fully developed veneer, little intensity, and no energy.
Thus the dissolution of the Beatles reveals that their compromises had always been psychological first, and musical second, and that without each other they both drift naturally to their own emotional-musical extreme. Lennon has the better of it for the moment, but he may falter yet: “Power to the People” was as awful in its own way as anything on Ram, and only a fool would write off a man of McCartney’s past accomplishments on the basis of two albums (I’m not much of a fan of the last one either).
All of which makes it no less easy to deal with this very bad album from this very talented artist. For myself, I hear two good things on this record: “Eat At Home,” a pleasant, if minor, evocation of the music of Buddy Holly (with some very nice updating), and “Sitting in the Back Seat of My Car,” the album’s production number.
The album’s genre music—blues and old rock—is unbearably inept. On “Three Legs” they do strange and pointless things to the sound of the voice to liven it up; it doesn’t work. “Smile Away” is sung with that exaggerated voice he used for the rock & roll medley in Let It Be: it is unpleasant. The “When I’m Sixty-Four” school of light English baubles is represented by “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a piece with so many changes it never seems to come down anywhere, and in the places that it does, sounds like the worst piece of light music Paul has ever done. And “Monkberry Moon Delight” is the bore to end all bores: Paul repeats a riff for five and a half minutes to no apparent purpose.
The lowest point on the album, and the one that most clearly indicates its failures, is “Heart of the Country.” It is an evenly paced, finger-picking styled tune, with very light jazz overtones, obviously intended as Paul’s idea of “mellow.” Somehow, his lyrics about the joys of the country ring false. Rather than a sense of self-acceptance or pride, I get a feeling of self-pity and self-justification from this cut, feelings that are almost masked by music so competent, in fact routine, that it all seems to slip away. Compare it to an earlier piece of music somewhat in the same vein, “Blackbird.” That song has all the charm and grace “Heart of the Country” tries for, but also the depth, purpose, and conviction, which are the missing ingredients from Ram as a whole.
These days groups are little more than collections of solo artists. The idea of a group as a unit with an identity of its own has become increasingly passe as groups become less and less stable: they seldom stay together long enough to achieve such an identity. But the Beatles were obviously a true group and history is now proving that it was greater than the sum of their parts. Collectively, the Beatles had a way of maximizing each of their individual strengths and minimizing each of their individual flaws. Individually, none of them can create on the same level, no matter how good some individual recordings may be.
For none of the Beatles is a truly self-sufficient artist and therefore none of them seems to function at his best as a soloist. In this light, Paul has simply proven to be the most vulnerable: the group hid most of his weaknesses longer and better than they did the others so that they were the most unexpected now that they have finally become visible. But now they have become visible and the results can scarcely be more satisfying to McCartney himself than they will be to the many people who will find this record wanting. McCartney and Ram both prove that Paul benefited immensely from collaboration and that he seems to be dying on the vine as a result of his own self-imposed musical isolation. What he finally decides to do about it is anybody’s guess, but it is the only thing that makes Paul McCartney’s musical future worth thinking about and hoping for.