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. …
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.”
Of 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.
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