Paul McCartney
Flowers in the Dirt
(EMI Paul McCartney Collection 89138)

This album represented my last big Paul McCartney phase, the last album of his that I believed in 100% before realizing how cheesy and shallow he can be, especially with 90s missteps like Off the Ground and (shiver) Flaming Pie. Nowadays my respect and admiration for McCartney is mixed with approximately equal contempt and ridicule for him, and while this displaced aggression is perhaps better worked out in therapy, I think that music reviews are the next best forum, right? Pretty soon I'll be leading retreat weekends for music critics in which you're supposed to release your "inner single" and "reclaim your vinyl." (??)

Flowers in the Dirt was an extremely inspired album, surprising even people like me who would have liked it if it had been all songs like "Spies Like Us." (I did, after all, love Press to Play – still do, sadly enough!) This is one of the only albums where he sounds like he means what he's singing (admit it, "Here Today" didn't exactly sound sincere – neither did "Yesterday," for that matter. That goes for all 1,300 versions.') Paul finds rejuvenation writing with Elvis Costello, a much more fruitful pairing than Costello & Bacharach – "My Brave Face" and "Veronica" are two of the best singles of the last 15 years. Not everything they wrote together was a gem (see "So Like Candy" and "Mistress and Maid"), but their styles are wonderfully complementary without seeming forced as with McCartney and Carl Perkins or Costello and Bacharach.

"My Brave Face" is easily one of Paul's best singles, and launches the album with much pomp and circumstance. Never mind the late 80s production values (Flaming Pie actually sounds more dated, even though it came out almost a decade later), the performances are warm and the songs are wonderful. I've probably played the album 500 times and I can still listen to it with enthusiasm.

I still remember getting the CD home and hearing "Put it There" for the first time – I think I played it 5 or 6 times in a row before allowing myself to go forward with the rest of the album. Simply amazing, wonderful – one of McCartney's "simple" songs that actually resonates (compare to the more calculated "Mull of Kintyre," or even "Blackbird"). Certainly one of my top five favorite Paul songs. Not all the tracks on Flowers are as amazing, in fact lots of them are merely competent AOR album tracks ("Figure of Eight," "Rough Ride," "This One"), but almost all of them are interesting and rewarding. Two of the four McCartney/Mac Manus compositions that appear on the disc aside from "My Brave Face" are quite sublime: "That Day is Done," which has a kind of New Orleans swagger to it that Paul has rarely explored; sounds a bit like Fats Domino crossed with, well, Spike-era Elvis Costello. "Don't Be Careless Love," similarly, has an old Baptist harmony basis that proves a fertile inspiration for McCartney's songwriting (though of the two, this one is pretty overproduced).

The big surprise on this album is the depth of the lyrical content, especially the ones which (gasp) actually sound personal ("Distractions," "We Got Married" and "Rough Ride" all seem to be about Paul & Linda's marriage, and have a surprising melancholy to them). Of course, there is the requisite "simple Paul" stuff ("How Many People"), but overall this is a much more fully committed album than McCartney generally puts out. The only one as honest is probably Flaming Pie, but that one seems to have been recorded by "lobotomized Paul." Flowers in the Dirt is incredibly satisfying, definitely Paul's best 80s album, leaving the terribly overrated Tug of War looking like a misfire (well, the album does a lot of that by itself). The UK reissue adds three bonus tracks, "Back On My Feet" (the first McCartney/Mac Manus collaboration from 1987 – enthusiastically so-so), "Flying to My Home" (great b-side of "My Brave Face" that suffers only from that reedy voice Paul sometimes affects for some reason) and "Loveliest Thing" (a 1986 outtake from the album that never materialized after Press to Play, released as the b-side to "Figure of Eight"). These make up for the tracks "Motor of Love" and "Ou Est Le Soliel," which aren't bonus tracks, but are in fact negative album tracks in that I never play them. Maybe the first two plays of the album, after that they became eternal skip-overs.

So, more than ten years later, Flowers in the Dirt stands as Paul's last great album. Along with Ram, Band on the Run, and possibly Wings Greatest and Press to Play, it is one of his only authentically great, big albums. Maybe there's another in him, who knows. I know no one even remotely predicted "this one."

Review by Ivan Loverling