Paul McCartney’s forgotten ‘Flowers in the Dirt’ gets the reissue

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.

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4 Responses to Paul McCartney’s forgotten ‘Flowers in the Dirt’ gets the reissue

  1. M Rosin says:

    “… in his first serious world tour since the Wings days, McCartney broke records and retired as a contemporary musical force.”

    That seems snide, and lacking in context. You act like it was any different for any of McCartney’s contemporaries. It’s not like any of them — Dylan, Neil Young, Bowie, the Stones, the Who, George Harrison, or any of them — were leading the way anymore musically in 1989. And why should they be expected to? They were in their 40s entering their late careers.

    What grates is this tendency of music writers to always, always, always go for the jugular — to insult McCartney in the meanest, most dismissive way possible (much like Erlewine’s review of Flowers today on Pitchfork going for the hyperbole by calling Rough Ride “the worst second track on an album ever). It’s the constantly sneering tone that bothers me. You all don’t use that sneering tone to write about Bowie or Dylan or Neil Young or Harrison — all of whom produced their share of mediocre to lousy records.

    What is it about McCartney that brings out the Mean Girl in music writers? Perhaps if he had a mental illness (like Brian Wilson) you would be more respectful. Or maybe if he was gay or had lost all his money or adopted some third-word religion, you would see depth instead of always making surface judgments about the man. Ironic that music writers do that very thing to McCartney that they accuse him of doing in his music. Perhaps if he’d been shot or died of cancer, you’d approach his music without the disparaging smirk?

    And given that McCartney has steadily produced some good to great late-career records — Run Devil Run, Chaos and Creation, Memory Almost Full, New, Electric Arguments — what the heck did it matter if he was not setting trends or selling massive amounts of records anymore in 1989? Neither were Bowie or Dylan or the Stones, or Neil Young, or any of the 60s & 70s legends. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. They were all still producing good music, as Paul and Dylan and Neil Young are today.

    Flowers isn’t on my list of top 5 (and maybe not even in my top 10) McCartney albums. So I’m not responding to your opinion on it. I’m responding to the constant refusal by music writers to take McCartney seriously as an artist. I always feel like music writers have to layer every review of his work with a thick veneer of wise-guy disdain.

    Just once I’d like to read a review that talks about his work without the need to cut him down to size in a way that writers don’t do to any other 60s legend.

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    If you’re still interested, you should read what I’ve written about Young, Harrison, Dylan, and other boomer icons over the years, not to mention of my championing of McCartney’s predilection for whimsy. Did you notice I love Press to Play?

  3. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Judging by your use of “mean girl” and the implied rebuke against homosexuality and “third world religions,” whatever that means, I get an idea of what you listen for in music.

    • M Rosin says:

      Mean Girl was simply a pop culture reference to refer to the tendency of music writers — for the past 40 years — to be particularly vicious about McCartney and his work, in ways that they are not vicious about his contemporaries (going all the way back to the 80s when a major critic actually wrote “why does it always have to be Kennedy and Lennon, why can’t it be Nixon and McCartney?”). I was critiquing the tendency of music writers to exaggerate Paul’s artistic failings — to trip over themselves in their eagerness to insult him first before writing something positive about his work. Do writers ever do that to Bowie or Dylan? Not nearly as often as they shove the knife into McCartney and then say, “oh, but, X, Y, and Z are great songs.”

      There was no implied rebuke against homosexuality and third-world religions. My overt rebuke was aimed at music reviewers.

      But the truth is: I was more pissed off at the snideness in the Pitchfork review and probably over-reacted here because Pitchfork doesn’t allow readers to comment. So my apologies for that.

      The main point on which I take issue with you is that McCartney “retired as a musical force” in 1989. That seemed an example of the extreme sneering I see all the time in writing about McCartney, when, in fact, Paul’s late-career work has been as good as the late-career work of Dylan, Bowie, Neil Young, etc. — that is to say, just like their late-career work, Paul’s late-career work is not as great as his best but certain NOT an indication of a spent force. IMO.

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