Paul McCartney’s “Flowers In The Dirt” Reviewed
In an alternative universe, Flowers In The Dirt, Paul McCartney’s 20th solo album, would’ve been a Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello collaboration from one end to the other, but between fallouts and the search for commercial success, McCartney went in a different direction. Having heard all sixteen songs they co-wrote, McCartney could have built a great album from the tracks, the McCartney, MacManus catalog could be built into a terrific album…
1 – My Brave Face
2 – …This Town
3 – Don’t Be Careless Love
4 – The Lovers That Never Were
5 – From A Playboy To A Man
6 – Veronica
1 – You Want Her Too
2 – Pads, Paws And Claws
3 – So Like Candy
4 – Mistress And Maid
5 – Back On My Feet
6 – That Day Is Done
Depending upon the production, this would have been a fine album. Their two best songs opening each side, and Costello’s odes to his Grandmother closing out each side, that alone would have made it something special. The production on Flowers In The Dirt was all over the place, Mitchel Froom, Neil Dorfsman, Trevor Horne, Steve Lipson…? How could you have Steve and Mitch on the same album? Was it Ze or F Records? Either way, the production was too busy on Flowers In The Dirt. With a gun to my head, I’d have fired everybody but Froom but with my choice of producer I’d have found Rick Rubin: the songs are strong enough to improved stripped down (the recently released demos underline the point). Something else, McCartney could have taken the best songs he wrote for this one and added it to the next, Off The Ground, and managed two goodies instead of one.
None of that happened and it was McCartney the businessman beating out McCartney the artist after both Press To Play and Chopa B CCCP bombed. In 1989 McCartney wasn’t what he is today, a pop icon who has passed his expiration date as a pop song producer, in 1989 he was a pop artist trying to art into the pop charts and with that in mind, McCartney was covering his bets. But his instincts were off. The first three songs on the first side were the two best with a blues bummer in the middle. Now, if it was 2017 I would get the math, nobody listens to an entire album and you have to hit the ground running. But that wasn’t true in 1989, everybody was going to give Side Two a try, so it made no sense. The album opener “My Brave Face” is like a Beatles 1965 single, like “Ticket to Ride” or “Eight Days A Week,” it’s job was simple: to be a perfect, tuneful, splendidly adept moment. It isn’t about deep thoughts, it isn’t about composing music, it’s an earworm with a vulnerable Paul McCartney aching through an upbeat song, a happy song about a sad thing. Plus, there is an inner joke: there is nothing brave about his face. “You Want Her Too” is “We Can Work It Out” meets “The Girl Is Mine,” only much better than “Girl”. Paul and Elvis fight over a girl and Costello is really quite venomous, that “so why don’t you come right out and say it, stupid?” is nasty in ways Lennon (where with the Beatles at least, the incriminations always returned to himself) wouldn’t lower himself. The edge and the sweetness is pure Beatles gold and Costello really spins it out. The two McCartney-McManus songs on side two aren’t as good, “Don’t Be Careless Love,” a tune Costello claimed was the best McCartney brought during their time writing together, might have been stifled due to a an overwrought production. The production hurts “That Day Is Done” though the song, a sequel to “Veronica,” written after Veronica, Costello’s Grandmother, had died, is the best song Richard Thompson never put his name to, a deadly dimming of the day waltz that should have been much starker, Also, what the hell was it doing in the middle of side two? A song, self-evidently, a closer is still great: nothing can really hurt it, and the demo version on the Special Edition, with the two men singing together, seemed like shared grief.
After those first three songs on side one, the next two, “Distractions” and “We Got Married” are misses, not disasters but a real lull. The side closes out with “Put It There,” written for his eleven year old son James, a gentle reaching out to the boy and in its own way as typical a McCartney as possible, he might as well be singing “we can work it out”. If you have ever seen that documentary of McCartney putting together the 9-11 concert at MSG, his diplomatic ease, his willingness to compromise, to be the goodguy is reflected backwards on this terrific track. Side two adds one more McCartney goodie to the list, “This One,” lyrically it is a little weak and the ending coda is a drag, but it is a sweet song.
At the time of Flowers In The Dirt release, I didn’t get much past side one, three great songs, three not great song. Time has been good to the song, it has pushed “That Day Is Done” into the open air and what felt like a gangbang of producers now feels like an interesting hodgepodge. It has greatness within its grasp and doesn’t grasp it but if its gifts are a touch slighter than they might be, they are real enough. Paul reached for the top of the pops, missed his mark, but ended up with some excellent pop art.