PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Flowers in the Dirt’

We’re pleased to present the second installment in a new series of articles exclusive to the SOMETHING NEW blog, in which some of our writers re-evaluate solo Beatles albums from the past. This issue, Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman takes another run at Paul McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt,” which he initially dismissed in 1989 as “just pleasant.” On listening again, he now finds that it’s an album that is aging quite nicely. …

flowers in dirt cover

Hard as it is to believe, November 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of Paul McCartney embarking on his first American tour since 1976. That tour was preceded a few months by a 12-song collection (13 on the original CD) “Flowers in the Dirt,” his first studio album of original material since 1986’s “Press to Play.”

This is actually the third time I’ve explored “Flowers in the Dirt” for Beatlefan. In the June-July 1989 issue of the magazine, I basically gave the album the back of my hand, dismissing it as being “just pleasant.” Indeed, my review was so dismissive that Bill King chimed in with a counterpoint that, while admitting this was one of McCartney’s “least rocking efforts,” rated “Flowers” as Paul’s “most satisfying work since 1982’s ‘Tug of War.’” Some 13 ½ years later, in the Nov.-Dec. 2002 issue, I took a look back at “Flowers” and 1993’s “Off the Ground,” largely within the context of the studio albums that preceded what were, at that point in time, McCartney’s most recent tours.

That means it’s been a dozen years since my last assessment of “Flowers,” and McCartney has hardly been off the road since then. But he hasn’t played a note from the album since the 1989-90 tour, and it’s been largely forgotten by all but Paul’s hardcore constituency.
So how does “Flowers in the Dirt” fare, better than a quarter-century after its first release?

Actually, it’s aged quite nicely, thank you. The complaints that some of us made about a lack of direction owing to the multi-producer format McCartney used has been rendered moot because many well-known acts since have gone that route, including McCartney, who used four producers on his generally well-received 2013 album, “New.”

macca 89Of course, the 1989 album’s best-remembered track was “My Brave Face,” one of four collaborations with Elvis Costello on “Flowers” and a U.S. Top 25 single, McCartney’s last one to date. It still pops up occasionally in a store via satellite radio or digital music services and is as catchy and delightful a listen as it was in 1989.

Of the three other McCartney-Costello tunes, “You Want Her Too,” with its Paul-Elvis lyrical conversation, and “That Day Is Done,” featuring Nicky Hopkins’ stately keyboard work, are still quite effective. “Don’t Be Careless Love,” not so much.

By now, we’ve gotten used to McCartney’s meanderings into various musical genres. In 1989, though, his expeditions into classical, ambient dance forms, etc. lay ahead. His core audience was still reeling from the synth-laden tracks on “Press to Play,” so the appearance here of the stripped-down, bluesy “Rough Ride” and jazzy “Distractions” took some getting used to. They’re not overly memorable, but they also don’t sound as dated as does so much of “Press to Play.”

Neither does “Motor of Love,” which still conjures up the ’70s Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s post-Beach Boys work, though that was just beginning when “Flowers in the Dirt” first appeared. Also, “Ou Est Le Soleil,” the “bonus” track on the original 1989 CD, was one of the first indications of the dance music experiments that would be a considerable part of the McCartney musical palette over the next quarter century.

The reggae-driven message song “How Many People” was less of a musical shock to the system, since McCartney’s love of reggae and Caribbean sounds could be traced all the way back to his Beatles days. It’s a lovely song, but unfortunately has fallen victim to the same cynicism that has eliminated as massive a hit as 1982’s “Ebony and Ivory” from radio airplay in the 21st century.

The McCartney band circa 1989.

The McCartney band circa 1989.

Then there’s “We Got Married,” which has all the slow-building elements of a classic rock track, including lead guitar from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Indeed, it became the arena/stadium “heavy” first set number in the 1989-90 tour shows, the only time that “Let Me Roll It” hasn’t held that spot since it was first done live on the 1975-76 Wings world tour.

The three remaining songs from the original “Flowers” album would be included in the set list for the 1989-90 world tour.

The lovely “Put It There,” inspired by Paul’s dad, would be a popular part of the mid-show acoustic set on that tour and retains its charm and warmth.

“This One” is a typical, totally accessible McCartney earworm that still pops up from time to time on Beatles radio shows.

And “Figure of Eight” would be the show-opener on the ’89-’90 tour, the last time that a non-Beatles or Wings favorite would serve as a McCartney concert opener. However, the “peace and love/get together” theme of the song has rendered it unfashionable in these cynical times, so it rarely gets a call, even on those Beatles radio shows. And, when “Figure of Eight” is played, it’s usually either the subsequent single version or the live recording from the ’89-’90 tour document, “Tripping the Live Fantastic,” rather than the seemingly unfinished “Flowers” version.

Overall, 25 years later, “Flowers in the Dirt” is an interesting reflection of a transitional period in McCartney’s career and, in retrospect, it does indeed stand with “Tug of War” as McCartney’s only fully-realized album projects of the ’80s.

— Al Sussman

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13 Responses to PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Flowers in the Dirt’

  1. Beatle Tom says:

    A nice summary, Al. I’ve always felt the album’s Achilles heel was it’s unevenness. That is, (without going cut for cut), the good songs are REALLY good (e.g. My Brave Face) but the “bad” ones I felt were REALLY subpar, less than b-grade Macca (e.g. We Got Married). I really had a hard time finding any middle ground on this one; a study in extremes and contrasts, more so than most of his albums.

  2. I loved this record when it was released in 1989 and I still love it to this day. Back then I thought it was McCartney’s best post-Wings album, and I stll think it is, alongside Flaming Pie and Chaos & Creation.
    When discussing this album, one has to consider the musical context in which it was released. British music in the second half of the eighties was very un-rock. Acts like Fine Young Cannibals and Simply Red dominated the charts. This album was, therefore, a product of its time. Macca sounded fresh and contemporary as he hadn’t done in years.
    I miss the songs from this album in Macca’s current setlist. I saw him live for the first time in the 1989 tour and these songs worked incredibly well. It’s a shame he’s neglected them for the last 20+ years.
    I have been largely disappointed by Macca’s latest studio albums, Memory Almost Full and New. That makes me appreciate Flowers in the Dirt even more. I still play regularly.

  3. Harold says:

    What a great tour that was! I still love that album.

  4. Harold says:

    I attend two press confrences on that tour. LA and Berkeley, California.

  5. Marcus says:

    I have always loved this album and Distractions always been a particular fav alongside Rough Ride.

  6. James Percival says:

    To my mind there was a uniformly high quality in the production and care taken with this album, but variable quality in the writing. For once in his life I actually agreed wholeheartedly with Giuliano (in his risible ‘Blackbird’ biography) when he listed 8 songs that worked and 6 that didn’t; his summary chimed exactly with my view. One thing that you don’t seem to have mentioned is that it was widely seen as a ‘return to form’ after Pipes of Peace, GMRTB and Press to Play, and there was a lot of excitement about the forthcoming tours.
    Just a couple of other observations: I don’t think that the collaborations with Costello worked well (at least not the ones on this album); and this was the point when I realised his voice was deteriorating and that some of his vocal performances were slightly substandard. I don’t know why people keep shying away from stating the truth about his voice; unquestionably great in the 60s and 70s, but a real tail off from the mid 80s onwards.

    • brian says:

      Spot on about his once great voice. I noticed it at this time too and even in 2016, where it is in pieces, people will not admit it. It’s like admitting they have aged too! He seemed to get through FLAMING PIE well though, the songs suited his mature vocals.

  7. Joseph Self says:

    I played it a few years ago, and found my opinion of it was about like when I got it. Three outstanding tracks (“My Brave Face” “This One” and “Put It There”) surrounded by a few OK one, and several that I can’t skip fast enough. It has higher peaks and deeper valleys than the two that followed, and as such, I tend to just listen to the trio I have on my MP3 player.

    • James Percival says:

      I tend to think differently in that, although there are unquestionably highs and lows, it has an overall consistency, or care, not always apparent on his earlier albums. The closest parallel for me is Tug of War where there are few really outstanding songs but a general high overall standard. That said, I think Tug of War is much better than this album.

  8. brian says:

    The production on FLOWERS is awful, completely tasteless and I feel the album was very over-rated on release. It sounds dated and bland to me. Post-TUG OF WAR he didn’t release a truly excellent album until 1997’s FLAMING PIE.
    From the 80’s, McCARTNEY 2 is far more enjoyable, creative and unforced than FLOWERS. I still listen to that one but rarely touch FITD anymore, bar the occassional listen to the beautiful DISTRACTIONS. The co-writes with COSTELLO just don’t work, he was no LENNON. The songs lack imagination, a key BEATLE skill.

    • James Percival says:

      Brian, we are definitely on the same page on a number of things. I think I am more thinking about care taken rather than a great production job. I agree with you about Flaming Pie which I think is a great album. Incidentally, I previously mentioned Giuliano’s verdict. The 8 that work? My Brave Face, Rough Ride, Distractions, Put it there, Figure of Eight, This One, We got Married (I’m not so convinced by this) and the CD bonus song, Out Est Le Soliel?

      • brian says:

        FIGURE OF EIGHT is one of his worst solo offerings, in my opinion. MY BRAVE FACE? It’s B-Side FLYING TO MY HOME is superior for me, less forced and deliberately ‘Beatley’ than MY BRAVE FACE. MBF does have a nice melodic bass line and some retro guitar but it’s just too contrived to satisfy. WE GOT MARRIED? Quite forgettable but with some decent Gilmour work ROUGH RIDE? top of the head stuff, nothing there, PUT IT THERE is nice. It’s very natural, emotional and charming. .THIS ONE-lovely bass line but the production ruins the song.

      • brian says:

        PS-as you alluded to, Giuliano is an appalling writer!

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