With Off The Ground, his first of three studio album releases in the 1990s, Paul McCartney had positioned himself in uncharted waters of sorts. After the critical and commercial triumph of 1982’s Tug Of War, McCartney began what can be best described as a career slide. It was a slow one, to be fair; the 1983 followup Pipes of Peace went Platinum and spawned a hit single with “Say Say Say”, and the ensuing 1984 project Give My Regards To Broad Street resulted in an utter disaster of a film but a hit album with a smash single in “No More Lonely Nights”.
But the critical notices were drying up, all of which culminated in Press To Play, which was Paul’s first commercial bomb of an album since 1971’s Wild Life. While it had received better reviews than some of his previous work, the critical response was still somewhat muted if not lukewarm, and the record’s commercial prospects were disastrous. The peaks were receding into horizon, and the valleys stretched out ominously in all directions.
McCartney rebounded with 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt, his best reviewed work since Tug Of War and a reasonable commercial success (if not exactly a smash). That record revived his critical fortunes of late, and the music contained therein featured some of the best songwriting and craftsmanship of his post-Beatles career. Certainly collaborating with Elvis Costello on several tracks sparked much of his creative energy, although only four of the roughly dozen songs they co-wrote were featured on the record. Paul and his band then embarked on a very successful World Tour, placing him before audiences for the first time in a decade.
So by 1993, McCartney was on a career resurgence, enjoying positive critical notices, although his commercial heyday was certainly in the past. Nonetheless, Sir Paul was always busy writing and recording, including a detour into classical music. The genesis of his 1993 studio release Off The Ground can be traced back to the fall of 1990, in which many album tracks first originated during demo sessions at The Mill Studio in Sussex. The Off The Ground sessions proper began in late November of 1991 and continued through the first half of 1992. The album was released in February of 1993, to both mixed reviews and solid but lackluster commercial response. The album went Gold in most markets (although only Silver in the UK) and Platinum in a few others (it was fairly popular in Spain and Germany), but with no notable breakout hits. The ensuing “The New World Tour”, however, was a big success; people still wanted to see and hear their McCartney live.
I avoided Off The Ground until a few weeks before I started writing this review. Since then I’ve listened to it several times, appraised it from many perspectives, and have come to the conclusion that it is one of the most consistent, least self-conscious, and overall relaxed albums McCartney has ever released.
The tracks were recorded “live in studio”, with an attempt to lend the record an air of raw, unrestrained energy. The end result doesn’t hit the heights of Flowers In The Dirt, but it stays at a consistent level of agreeableness. The result is a fine sounding record that slips into an easygoing vibe and settles there from start to finish. Much of it works; parts of it do not. But overall it presents a non-essential but certainly enjoyable album experience from Paul McCartney.
The album boasts one strong feature, and that is a plethora of McCartney pop hooks. The title track “Off The Ground” is a scrappy pleaser, shuffling along congenially with a singalong chorus and a mid-tempo earnest likability. The followup track, “Looking For Changes”, attempts to be socially conscious with a plea against animal testing. The upbeat pop musicality of the track clashes against the unwieldy, ham-handed grimness of its lyrics. It’s a clunky tune, albeit one that is musically agreeable.
“Hope Of Deliverance” is a simple plea for understanding set against Latin-infused rhythms. It’s a beautifully produced track, with fine guitar work from McCartney, Hamish Stuart, and Robbie McIntosh, and lingers in memory long after completion. “Mistress and Maid”, leftover from the Flowers In The Dirt demos, has the distinction of being one of two tunes on Off The Ground that was written by both McCartney and Elvis Costello. Rather disappointingly, this track doesn’t quite work. The lyrics and central melody are certainly strong enough, but it is drenched in entirely too much production polish to effectively drive home its tale of a wife emotionally abandoned by her spouse. The result sounds like an odd misstep. Stripped down, with a melancholic guitar and piano backbone and no overbearing reverb on the vocals, this could have been a total winner. Alas.
“I Owe It All To You” is another winning album track. There’s an element to its vocal melody that reminds me of 1968-1971 McCartney, perhaps his most earnest, self-reflective songwriting era. Its romantic overtures contrast beautifully against its minor key undertones, with a gentle but driving rhythm and genuine sense of romantic need and loving appreciation. This could be one of McCartney’s most unheralded love songs, but maybe it never took off because it was followed by the execrable “Biker Like An Icon”, an attempt to turn an insipid play of words into an entire song. It’s a thoroughly terrible track; well produced, sure, but then again the entire album is. Good slide guitar solo? Big deal. Nothing else about this track works. And yet somehow they tried to release this as a single. No wonder the album never really took hold.
It’s hard not to like a song that begins with “Best thing I ever saw was a man who loved his wife…”, and “Peace In The Neighborhood” has such a sweet likability to it, but the song isn’t much. It’s another “social plea” tune, a standard bit about loving your fellow-man and global consciousness and “love vibrations” and what not, but the song is little more than OK and no worse than middling. It doesn’t offend, but it comes across as the background music performed during a PSA for the local meals on wheels. I prefer “Golden Earth Girl”, which upon first listen comes across sounding like it must have been something written and demoed during the Red Rose Speedway sessions, and if it were released on that record it would have been a smash. This is a gentle, beautifully realized track, simple and sweet and totally McCartney doing what he does best.
“The Lovers That Never Were” is easily the better of the two Paul McCartney/Elvis Costello songwriting collaborations, an aching tale of unrequited love that exquisitely sums up heartbreak in two lines: For as long as the trees throw down blossoms and leaves / I know there will be a parade of unpainted dreams. There’s a bit of unnecessary business with some of the percussion and call-and-response vocals during the chorus, but it doesn’t diminish what is otherwise a great track.
“Get Out Of My Way” is McCartney tipping his hat to early 90s country rock, filled with booming horns, single-coil guitar licks, honky-tonk piano, and a heart-pulsing, toe-tapping forward momentum. It’s a decent tune, certainly fun enough, and acquits itself nicely as an agreeable album track. But then “Winedark Open Sea” might be my favorite song on the album. It has a gentle, almost (but not quite) a Yacht Rock vibe, but there’s more to the track than smooth, easy vibes. There’s an edge and raw honesty to this heartfelt love song, the ocean metaphor nothing new but worked to great effect here. This song is reminiscent (but not derivative) of late 70s Bob Seeger, lights dimmed, smoke hazy, the scent of weed and whiskey lingering in the afterglow.
Unfortunately the album ends with “C’mon People”, a slow, unengaging ‘call to action’ of sorts. Musically it wallows in a sort of limp rut that plagued some of McCartney’s music of the era, and that’s a shame. The song feels more preachy than it probably actually is, and maybe with a more compelling musical backbone it would have ended the album better. Pairing it with a hidden track, “Cosmically Conscious”, a tune Paul wrote in 1968 while on a spiritual retreat in India with the rest of The Beatles, probably doesn’t help. The result comes across as pandering and obvious, and it’s an unfortunate way to end the record.
I wouldn’t exactly call Off The Ground a hidden gem or lost masterpiece, but whatever reputation the album has engendered since 1993 — if it has generated any at all — does not do the record enough justice. It’s a surprisingly solid and often impressive effort from McCartney and his backing band. The “social conscience” tracks drag the record down a spell, and “Biker Like An Icon” is pretty terrible, but there’s plenty to really enjoy about Off The Ground. This album is way too often overlooked by McCartney fans. It readily deserves an honest appraisal.