The Upshot: Expanded reissue of 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt is the sound of Macca picking himself up after taking some hits on a remarkably diverse (read: hit or miss, and at times downright bizarre) album, now expanded into the usual multi-disc and now-obligatory multi-vinyl iterations.
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
The 1980s was a decade of mixed success for Paul McCartney. McCartney II (1980) offered a rare glimpse at his quirky side, while Tug of War (1982) showcased him in fine form. Then things got rocky. There was the decidedly lackluster Pipes of Peace (1983); the success of the “Say Say Say” single (due to his paring up with the biggest star in the world at that time, Michael Jackson); the debacle of the Give My Regards to Broad Street film in 1984 (though the soundtrack yielded a good single in “No More Lonely Nights”); and the puzzling Press (1986), which peaked at #30 (his lowest charting release since — well, ever) and failed to even go gold.
So McCartney took his time before releasing his next major record (he did bang out an album of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, Choba B CCCP — “Back in the USSR” — initially released in Russia only in 1988; worldwide release came in 1991). He even reached for a little outside help on his songs, collaborating with Elvis Costello. The extra effort paid off; 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt was certainly McCartney’s strongest album since Tug of War, and set the stage for his return to live performance.
At the time, much was made over the McCartney/McManus (Costello’s real name) songwriting team. But with one exception, the best songs on Flowers are McCartney’s. That exception is the album’s first song (and single), the poppy “My Brave Face”; it’s about a romantic breakup, but as a song about loss, it’s become more poignant since the death of McCartney’s first wife, Linda. The rest of the pair’s numbers aren’t as successful. In interviews at the time, McCartney loved to say how the collaboration on “You Want Her Too” (where both McCartney and Costello vie for the attentions of the same woman) echoed that of the positive/negative interplay with John Lennon on “Getting Better.” But frankly the McCartney/McManus number sounds forced and drags. Similarly, the Irish-gospel of “That Day is Done” is a painfully slow dirge. Though “Don’t Be Careless,” is interesting because it’s so bizarre; McCartney tortures his voice into a high register as he describes paranoid visions of his loved one being “chopped up into two little pieces.” Substantially darker than “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
On his own, McCartney comes up with good, strong material. “Put It There” is trademark McCartney, a simple, lovely number about a father passing on his wisdom to his son. The funky “Rough Ride” is surprisingly lustful if you take a closer look at the lyrics. Yet the man who once championed “Silly Love Songs” now viewed the subject from a perspective that’s decidedly bittersweet. The gentle “Distractions” is about how love subsides in the face of day-to-day life, while “We Got Married” makes the observation, “It’s not just a loving machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it.” Even the ostensibly catchy “This One” is somewhat regretful in its admission that we don’t often take the time to tell a loved one how much they mean to us.
The rest is more of a mixed bag. “Figure of Eight” is pleasant, but unsubstantial (oddly, McCartney chose this song to open his 1989/90 shows, instead of something more instantly recognizable). The vaguely reggae-ish “How Many People” is an agreeable let’s-make-the-world-a-better place tune. The closer, “Motor of Love” is a dreaded power ballad, sounding even worse due to those awful ’80s production techniques (e.g. processed drums). The original bonus track, “Ou est le Soleil” (“Where is the Sun”) is a bit of fun, McCartney indulging his penchant for dance rock (cue the extended remixes!).
There’s a 2-CD/2-LP version that includes eight original demos between McCartney and Costello, especially interesting as they include demos of songs that didn’t appear on Flowers (“Playboy to a Man” is nicely high spirited). And for the truly indulgent experience, there’s a 3-CD/1-DVD box set, also featuring a 112 book about the making of the album, and some other goodies. The most fun item is a cassette, featuring three of the McCartney/Costello demos. The set’s other CD features even more demos. But someone made the boneheaded decision to have the original Flowers era B-sides and remixes (four of “Ou est le Soleil”!) only available through download, not on a fourth CD. In a bizarre non-interview with SuperDeluxeEdition.com, McCartney’s manager Scott Rodger apparently indicated (SDE’s Paul Sinclair noted, “To stress, these are not direct quotes from Scott and these aren’t necessarily the exact questions I asked, but I’ve created the questions and answers below to try and simplify and clarify the points of view”) that there was a belief that people are more excited about streaming, hence there was no need to have a fourth CD in the set. Wrong. As the commentary on sites like amazon makes clear, people spending over $100 bucks on a set (Flowers’ Super Deluxe is retailing for $117.99 at amazon), would much, much prefer to have everything on CDs (with accompanying downloads available, but not featuring any exclusive material). There are also some complaints that not every Flowers era B-side was used.
The DVD is stuffed as well, featuring the numerous videos created for the tracks, back when videos still mattered (including a truly embarrassing one for “My Brave Face,” about an avaricious Japanese collector of Beatles memorabilia); footage of McCartney and Costello working in the studio; and the documentary Put It There. In short, a comprehensive look at Paul McCartney’s professional life in 1989.
Flowers in the Dirt is Paul McCartney picking himself back up after taking some hits. What else could you expect from Mr. Thumbs-Up? You can knock him down, but he’s always going to get right back up again. Good on ya, Paul!