Friday, October 2, 2009

Paul McCartney 18: Flowers In The Dirt

Right in the middle of the hair metal revolution came the announcement that Paul was going to tour the world, including America. Oh, and there’d also be a new album. Flowers In The Dirt arrived amidst an exhaustive media blitz wherein Paul told the same stories with the same eyebrow raises and subtle nudges we knew by heart. (To his credit, Paul is oblivious to the sad fact that thousands of us know his history better than he does.) He was also sure to show off his old Hofner bass with the setlist still taped to it, as if he was picking up where he left off in 1966.
“My Brave Face” was upbeat enough to be a strong first single, if a little skewed; the late afternoon counterpart to “For No One”. It was the most successful of four included projects with Elvis Costello, who didn’t ignore the classic McCartney style and helped him to write what came naturally. “Rough Ride” starts out interestingly enough, but when performed live became background music while everybody headed to the john. It deserved better. “You Want Her Too” is a harsh sounding cartoon, and brought out the worst in both Macca and EC. (He’d point to this as a comparison to writing head-to-head with John—not a wise move.) “Distractions” is a half-asleep little number, and a step in the right direction. Then we go two steps back with the obvious “We Got Married”, the oldest recording in the set, produced by MOR yawnmeister David Foster; even he said it wasn’t a good song. “Put It There” ends the side pleasantly enough, with a “Blackbird”-type accompaniment and inoffensive lyrics about fatherly advice.
The second side begins with a possible future classic, “Figure Of Eight”. It would be reworked the following year when released as a single; that version seems better rounded, but this original still shows off all the hooks. “This One” is almost as good, even when the words get clumsy (“if I never did it”—thud). But it’s also the last above-average song here. Neither of the other two Elvis songs flow well; “Don’t Be Careless Love” is written in too high a key for either of them, and while “That Day Is Done” would be much better served eight years later when performed by the Fairfield Four in a gospel harmony setting, this rendition has only the briefest glimpse of its potential. “How Many People” is very well intentioned, but Paul never learned not to write protest songs. “Motor Of Love” is slathered in Cars keyboards and a Tears For Fears mix to the point where the bare framework of the song is camouflaged. (That’s how the LP ends—the CD finishes with “Ou Est Le Soleil?”, which is worse than even the instrumentals left off of McCartney II. He liked it so much he sanctioned numerous extended remixes of it. It’s safe to say the vast majority of the consumers who bought all those versions didn’t listen to each more than once, if at all. The same could be said for the disposable “Party Party”, included as a single with a re-release of the album in certain territories to promote the tour.)
With all the different producers credited on all the songs, it’s only natural that Flowers In The Dirt is a schizophrenic listening experience. It retains its late ‘80s glaze, but at least the musicians who would accompany him around the stages of the world are credited and pictured. It’s certainly better than most of what he spent the decade doing. But just as in 1976, we didn’t care about the new songs—we were gonna see him on stage again.
Nearly three decades later, when the album was reissued after many delays as part of his ongoing Archive Collection series, Paulie made the smart move of including all of the much-bootlegged demos recorded with Costello on the two-disc expansion, making it essential for EC fans. In the more expensive Deluxe Edition, a third disc contained full band demos of the same Costello co-writes, giving an intriguing glimpse into the album’s early incarnation as a full Costello collaboration, including songs that would eventually make it to future albums by both guys. However, most (but not all) of the pertinent B-sides and remixes were offered as downloads only, along with three further rare Costello demos that also saw separate release as a limited-edition cassette. (Yes, a cassette. In 2017.) While much could be said of the improved fidelity—and making it easy to delete over half an hour dedicated to variations on “Ou Est Le Soleil?” and “Party Party” from one’s hard drive—McCartney’s ongoing indifference to what his fans really want, not to mention the whole point of an “archive”, continues to disturb.

Paul McCartney Flowers In The Dirt (1989)—3
2017 Archive Collection: same as 1989, plus 9 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 9 tracks plus DVD and downloads)

1 comment:

  1. I saw the promotional video for this, called “Put it There”, during a PBS pledge drive (obviously, I am a Boomer). It showed the band rehearsing songs for the tour. It worked on me. I was sold. This is the best Paul had done since “Band on the Run”.

    I was surprised to read that different teams of producers worked on the songs. Unlike you, I think the album is remarkably cohesive. I don’t find it too “80’s”, unlike the previous two, since the electronics aren’t the central featuring, but added for coloring instead. The exceptions come at the end of the album. “Motor of Love”, the weakest track, comes with a sappy backing track you might expect of Paul’s wimpiest love songs, coupled with a clumsy theological metaphor about the Prime Mover being the Motor of Love. However, despite myself, I like “Ou est le Soleil?”, above average for an 80’s electronic jam.

    The rest of the songs are quite good. Paul, for the first time in ages, seems to be paying more attention to both music and lyrics. One would David Foster from his ruination of Chicago and Gordon Lightfoot, to cater to Paul’s most maudlin tendencies. Instead, “We Got Married” is actually nice. Elvis Costello bumps up the sophistication level quite a bit, most notably on “That Day is Done” and “My Brave Face” (although Paul was hardly “unaccustomed to the luxury life”). “This One” is nice and jaunty, “Rough Ride” a little spooky. “Distractions” was the only song not performed live in the PBS special. Instead, it got a music video, probably because its production was too elaborate. “Figure of Eight” borders on being a sort of “Ram”-ish throwaway lyrically, but it’s catchy. (However, “Party Party”, shown in rehearsal, is – a B-side, at best). The song that really sold me, however, is “Put it There”. The lyrics are more than serviceable – they are truly moving. Paul says so much with so little, both in words and music. This really turned me back into a fan. The whole album would make me pay more attention to McCartney from here on out.