Album Review: “Flowers In The Dirt” — Paul McCartney (1989)

Back in 1989, I was 18 years old and neck deep in college/alt/indie music (mostly) and had no use for new Paul McCartney records.

Oh don’t get me wrong, he was (and still is) a musical hero and inspiration and legend and all that, but his solo work had long since run it’s course with me… and with many, by that time. After the twin critical duds of Pipes of Peace (1983) and Give My Regards To Broad Street (1984), along with total commercial non-starter Press To Play (1986), Paul was in an extremely tenuous commercial and critical space in the mid/late 1980s. His albums weren’t selling, and the critics were largely indifferent.

Clearly something had to be done.

Paul, being Paul, did what he always did: he kept making new music. In 1987 he recorded multiple sessions’ worth of songs, including tracks for his Russian covers album Choba B CCCP. Then later in the year, he collaborated with Elvis Costello and, in an extremely fertile period, laid down 8 demo tracks that would form part of the foundation for his 1989 release Flowers In The Dirt.

These sessions continued into 1988, both with and without Costello, and resulted in a fascinating body of work (including recording two tracks with Johnny Cash). When the album was finally sequenced, mixed, and released in June of 1989, the response was generally positive if not totally ecstatic. Flowers In The Dirt got decent reviews, and sold significantly better than Press To Play. It went Gold in the US and Platinum in the UK, Double Platinum in Spain, and sold generally well around the world. Paul even promoted the album with his first World Tour since 1976, returning him to live audiences for the first time in a decade or more.

All I know is that I heard the opening refrain to lead-off single “My Brave Face” and quickly changed channels. It sounded too slick, too produced, too flabby to my 1989 ears, and I moved on, never looking back.

Until 2017, that is.

I never gave Flowers In The Dirt an honest appraisal until MPL announced that it was going to be the next release in “The Paul McCartney Archive Collection”, a series of deluxe releases that has also included albums such as McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run, Venus and Mars, Wings Over America, Wings At The Speed of Sound, Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, and McCartney II. Since I’m a bit of a McCartney collector, I figured I might as well give the album a good listen and see if it would be worth my time.

The verdict?

This album is so worth my time. Very much so. But as good as it is, it isn’t perfect. Yet in 1989, I’m sure “very good but not perfect” had to be viewed as a victory for Paul McCartney.

I think the biggest flaw to Flowers In The Dirt is that it doesn’t hold together musically as a cohesive whole. Of the celebrated Elvis Costello collaboration which produced nearly a dozen songs, only four are represented here. The remaining eight tracks have several different producers and styles, resulting in a mish mash of pop rock, ballads, R&B, and acoustic folk.

And yet Flowers In The Dirt has so many wonderful songs, it’s hard to mind all that much. Take the aforementioned “My Brave Face”; the opening a capella rendition of the chorus sounds odd and cheesy, with too much of that late 80s/90s slick over-production. That made me change the channel in 1989. But once you get past it? The song grooves to a fantastic Beatlesque melody, with an assured confidence of pop perfection you expect from Paul McCartney.

Almost immediately, all this goodwill is destroyed by the execrable “Rough Ride”, a nearly five-minute slick R&B exercise that is just dreadful. Think monotone vocals over drum machines and synth horns… this track sounds like McCartney trying to cover a vintage Paula Abdul single, and badly.

But then there’s “You Want Her Too”, a much cooler thematic update to the insipid McCartney/Michael Jackson single “The Girl Is Mine” from Jackson’s epic Thriller album. The carnival music and 3/4 time signature lead to strong call-and-response verses featuring both McCartney and Costello. Their competitive banter over the girl in question is melodic, piercing, honest, and unbelievably effective. This could be McCartney’s best harmonizing with another singer in years. Maybe since The Beatles. Who knows.

The mellow balladry and lush orchestrations of “Distractions” is the sort of Latin rhythms-infused treacle that can torpedo the efforts of most other artists, but McCartney beautifully sells it. Consider it a mash-up of “And I Love Her” from A Hard Day’s Night and “Bluebird” from Band on the Run, with more than a hint of k.d. lang’s “Miss Chatelaine”. I think it’s a lovely track, even with the somewhat questionable (but ultimately satisfactory) falsettos on the third verse.

“We Got Married” is a lesser but worthwhile album cut, a minor-key number that starts in a kind of flamenco-folk mode and then erupts into a trumpet-laden piece of late 80s synth pop. The song is catchy but doesn’t really go anywhere and meanders just a bit too long for my taste. It’s not a bad track and is certainly an enjoyable listen, but I found myself wanting something more from it.

Now “Put It There” gives us Paul at his intimate, folksy best, doing an acoustic tribute to his father (or any father/son relationship) that is toe-tappingly addictive, with a strong, driving melody and an infectious sing-along chorus. This feels like one of the better home-brewed Paul tracks from Ram, McCartney, or even The Beatles (“White Album”), and that’s high praise indeed. That string arrangement between verses gets me every time. At barely over two minutes, it’s the shortest track on the album, but every note of it is perfection.

“Figure of Eight” could be construed as another “dated” album cut, and there’s no doubt that it feels like a track extremely rooted in 1989. But if it represents Paul attempting to sound fresh and contemporary and “of the times”, it also represents Paul succeeding in that endeavor. It’s worth pointing out that McCartney released an entirely different take of this song as a single. The single version is a little less polished-sounding, a little rawer and rougher and less restrained. I like both versions but if I had to choose between the two, I prefer the album cut. I think the higher production values and restraint serve the song better.

“This One” is almost a bit of a fake-out, as it starts out sounding like a meandering piece of slush, but it quickly reveals itself to be a lovely little number about finding the right time for expressing the right emotion. Some of the lyrics are a little wonky in the chorus, but it’s sung so earnestly and with such melodic character, “This One” is hard not to love.

Right about now it bears mentioning that of the opening 8 tracks, I’ve almost much enjoyed all of them. In fact, I’ve really liked or loved seven of them and could live without the remaining track. That’s one hell of a batting average. This could shape up to be a McCartney classic if he can stick the landing, right?

Well… if McCartney’s 70s output proved anything, it’s that even on some of his stronger albums, the track sequencing tends to fall apart towards the finish.

“Don’t Be Careless Love” is the album’s third collaboration with Elvis Costello. With its gospel’ish introduction and electric piano, it wears a bit of Stevie Wonder on its sleeve, but I don’t think the song really adds up to all that much. In fact it’s mostly repetitive and busy sounding. Paul’s strained vocals during the verses don’t work all that well either.

“That Day Is Done” is a bore. It’s a slow, gospel/R&B dirge that tries to sound soulfully inspired, but it’s a tedious slog. The reggae-lite of “How Many People” does little to inspire much of anything. It’s a cloying piece of sentimentality that feels like a discarded Sting recording from his 1985 The Dream of the Blue Turtles masterpiece.

The album ends disappointingly with “Motor Of Love”, a melange of MOR, Easy Listening, Adult Contemporary synth/drum machine-driven nonsense that features little more than a strong vocal performance from McCartney, which is utterly drowned out by thick layers of over-production and a melody that goes nowhere.

Looking at Flowers In The Dirt twenty-eight years after its initial release, I found myself pretty much ready to love it as a mid-solo-career masterpiece from Paul McCartney. But what starts out as a mostly fantastic album suddenly and inexplicably falls apart during the last handful of songs. Four of the album’s twelve tracks are forgettable to very disappointing, one is mediocre, but one is pretty good and the remaining six songs are AMAZING. The strength of those songs outweight the schlock of the weak tunes, so much so that I feel Flowers In The Dirt remains one of the better mid-career McCartney albums, perhaps second after Tug Of War. Again, the “very good but not perfect” judgment is pretty much accurate. But what’s good is SO good, it more than merits any Macca fan’s attention.

By all means, seek out the 2017 Flowers In The Dirt reissue. For the McCartney/Costello demos alone, the set is entirely worth it. Tracks like “The Lovers That Never Were”, “Tommy’s Coming Home”, “Twenty Fine Fingers”, “So Like Candy”, and “Playboy To A Man” are so strong and so beautifully performed, even as studio demos, that you wonder why they never were included in the original album release. Or perhaps, released with the other collaborations that were included on the final album, but as a full-fledged McCartney/Costello duet record, with little more than acoustic guitars, pianos, drums… can you imagine McCartney/Costello: Unplugged, doing those songs plus choice tracks from both artists? Mind-blowing…

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