Released at the nadir of his commercial fortune, Flowers in the Dirt was Paul McCartney’s response to the Steve Winwoods, Moody Blues, Grateful Deads, Monkees, and other mummified contemporaries scoring MTV play and Michelob money. Platinum albums too – former band mate/bete noire George Harrison got two consecutive ones in less than a year. Whether with disco in 1979 or austere synth pop in 1980, McCartney played hard to get with trends; he would pursue a trend after realizing it wasn’t pursuing him. The era of the multi-producer album kicked off by Tina Turner’s Private Dancer was waning. Still, few people in 1988-1989 would’ve disputed the sense in hiring Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson, and Mitchell Froom. McCartney needed a punch in the face, and if we believe Horn and Lipson, these self-professed non-fans of rock and roll gave him several.
The result is a curate’s egg of an album, neither triumph nor dud. The money and effort expended for the sake of the reissue, to which McCartney has added several rather good demos and the CD-only minor club hit “Ou Es Le Soleil,” has other ideas, suggests otherwise. My judgment hasn’t changed. The first McCartney solo album I ever bought, Flowers in the Dirt mixes overcooked non-entities, excellent songs almost ruined by their fussy handlers, and excellent songs left to be excellent. At the time I was taken with the straightforward troth “This One,” buoyed by one of McCartney’s effortless middle eights and an attractive melody; now I wonder why somebody couldn’t shake him by the shoulders for adding a useless outro in which grown men (Hamish Stuart of Average White Band is a key instrumentalist) do funny voice contortions as if ashamed of their good work three minutes ago. I’m even more taken with a delightful bauble, steeped in tropicalia, called “Distractions,” orchestrated by Prince collaborator Clare Fischer. Although a rather bald attempt at writing a sequel to 1984 evergreen “No More Lonely Nights,” “We Got Married” offers a more adult lyric than is McCartney’s wont (“Going fast, coming soon/We made love in the afternoon/Found a flat, after that/We got married”), a steady acoustic rhythm, and a David Gilmour solo as poised and almost as perfect as his contribution to “…Nights.” Also a delight is “Figure of Eight,” a knockneed blues pop jam with “Day Tripper” in its blood and an uncharacteristically ragged McCartney vocal; a middle eight stuck after the first chorus takes the track into unexpected places, the result of mixing board decisions, perhaps (there are as many as two different versions extant of “Figures of Eight”).
Two of these tracks, I should note, are McCartney self-productions, sounding like what audiences in 1989 would expect from a Paul McCartney in full command: an impeccable ear for fleshing out melodies and an instinct for framing a lyric in the most attractive manner. Bowing to a laudable impulse to make a late eighties instead of a sixties record, McCartney surrenders the album’s dumbest material to Horn and Lipson. “Rough Ride” sounds like the producer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Slave to the Rhythm had no clue how to program synths; “Motor of Love” lacks a carburetor. At least McCartney’s last album, the misbegotten but charming Press to Play, boasts his version of “Two Tribes.”
But Flowers in the Dirt got the headlines that Press to Play and Pipes of Peace didn’t because McCartney chose the most puntastic, garrulous songwriter of his generation as a collaborator. At the time McCartney would be half-joking when he said he worked with Elvis Costello because like his late partner he wore glasses acerbically; the variety show routine of “You Want Her Too” sounds written to support the joke. But in Costello McCartney found a partner whose affection for pop music encompassed Garnet Mimms and ABBA, Aztec Camera and Solomon Burke. It’s not that McCartney was incapable of producing the tricky chord changes and talk-sung melodic lines of the lovely “My Brave Face” on his own; it’s that by 1989 no one expected him to try. “That Day is Done,” an uneven stab at New Orleans funeral music given a Wembley-scale mix, is a promising nice try awaiting a resourceful cover version someday – Jessie Ware, stream it.
They got what they wanted: “My Brave Face” became McCartney’s last American top forty hit, while “Veronica,” released several months earlier, dominated college radio and MTV and turned into Costello’s only top twenty placing. They wrote other songs, sprinkled through their nineties discographies. Costello would proceed to bury other products of their collaboration like “Pads, Paws, and Claws” and “So Like Candy” under several pounds of Mellotrons and hysterical vocal affectations. Although Flowers in the Dirt went gold here and topped the British chart, it existed as an excuse to get out on the road: in his first serious world tour since the Wings days, McCartney broke records and retired as a contemporary musical force, much as the Stones would that autumn with Steel Wheels. He doesn’t play these songs anymore. Should he, he can start with “Put It There,” one of his few realized odes to fraternity because it’s not an anthem and has another masterpiece of a string arrangement, this one by George Martin.
The late eighties were an odd netherworld, a period when boomer icons could for a time rely on high schoolers buying their records. Compared to Back in the High Life Again and Storyville, Flowers in the Dirt has the tunes to support its undoubted ambition. Ordinarily his attention span doesn’t let him think songs through, therefore the arrangements are supposed to solve the problem. It augured nothing, though, except another decade of touring and Beatle nostalgia. For McCartney, whimsy was a job.