Winchelsea, England — HE noticed it when his cellphone, stuffed with too many text messages, voicemails and phone numbers, started flashing at him: "Memory almost full." It was remarkably like his own brain, weighted down with half-written songs, daughter Bea's schedule, the lyrics to old Beatles B-sides, the blurring faces of long-buried loves and friends.
Delete? Re-record? Which parts go, and which -- the carpets of bluebells outside Liverpool in spring, sitting on twin beds in a hotel room with John Lennon writing "She Loves You" -- stay locked in the hard drive of time?
"Your memory is always almost full these days. There's so much going on, so I thought it was a poetic way to sum up modern life. Just overload, information overload," Paul McCartney says of his 21st solo album, "Memory Almost Full," which explores the persistence of memory, preparing for the settling of scores and a life too full to hold it all.
"It's been pointed out to me that since the album is heavy on retrospective stuff, there's a sort of finality about it. 'Memory almost full,' any second now it will be full, and, 'Goodbye cruel world.' It's not what I meant about it at all, but I can see that meaning, and I like, you know, people to have different interpretations. "Abbey Road" to us was a crossing outside the studio. I'm sure to some people, it meant Monastery Lane, and we liked that sort of quasi-religious feel of it too."
The album (out Tuesday) marks the 64-year-old McCartney's plunge into another kind of digital age. Ending his relationship with Capitol Records/EMI that began in 1962, McCartney has hooked up with Starbucks' new Hear Music Label and unlocks the new album (along with the rest of his solo catalog) for online downloads. McCartney also says the Beatles catalog is on deck for online release near the end of the year, although EMI has not announced a date.
The video for "Dance Tonight," the party-tune, mandolin-laced foot-tapper that opens the record, made its world premiere on YouTube, in a bid to charm a third generation with the kind of winsome songs their grandmother should know.
"I was bored with the old record company's jaded view," McCartney says, plopped on a sofa in the large, comfortable farmhouse that doubles as a rehearsal studio here in the rolling, tree-studded hills of rural East Sussex. Outside, there is an old windmill, and in the near distance, the hazy blue carpet of the English Channel.
"They're very confused, and they will admit it themselves: that this is a new world, and they're a little bit at a loss as to what to do. So they've got millions of dollars and X budget ... for them to come up with boring ways -- because they've been at it for so long -- to what they call 'market' it. And I find that all a bit disturbing.
"I write it, I play it, I record it, and that's all fun. And you go to the record company, and it gets very boring. You sit around in rooms with people, and you're almost falling asleep" -- he rolls his head down midchest --"and they're almost falling asleep.
"My record producer [David Kahne] said the major record labels these days are like dinosaurs sitting around discussing the asteroid. They know it's going to hit. They don't know when, they don't know where it's coming from. But it's sort of hit already. With iTunes, and all of that."
McCartney heard that Starbucks' content development guy, Alan Mintz, loved his music; better, he was a bass player. They arranged to meet in New York, along with Howard Schultz, the chief executive who turned Starbucks from a high-fallutin' bean roaster in Seattle into a multibillion-dollar global purveyor of expensive coffee drinks and cool ambience.
The vision from Starbucks and its Concord Music Group partner in Hear Music: Roll out "Memory Almost Full" across time zones on the in-store music systems at more than 10,000 coffeehouses in 29 countries (copies available as you pay for your latte, and at dinosaur record stores too, of course). That means an estimated 6 million people get a listen on the first day.
"We felt we were in a unique position to really transform the way music is discovered and delivered to the music consumer," said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment in Los Angeles.
"When we heard the album, we just knew it was really a landmark in a number of ways. Musically, it's the most personal and revealing album that Paul's created in his solo career. Thematically, many of the songs are a reflection of his life, his career, his jobs and the tragedies, a reflection of the remarkable journey his life has been."
McCartney had the same reaction to Apple founder Steve Jobs -- with whose company Apple records was locked in trademark litigation for years -- as he had to Schultz. "He too is very cool, very passionate, they really care about working with your music.