Friday 14 August 2009

Paul McCartney "Flowers In The Dirt" (1989) (News, Views and Music 40; Revised Review 2015)

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Paul McCartney “Flowers In The Dirt” (1989)

My Brave Face/Rough Ride/You Want Her Too/Distractions/We Got Married/Put It There/Figure Of Eight/This One/Don’t Be Careless Love/That Day Is Done/Too Many People/Motor Of Love/Ou Est Le Soliel?
As Macca has just announced that yet another world tour is over (his fifth in six years), it seems like a good time to go back 20 years to the time when Paul was buzzing with excitement over his first tour in 10 years. ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ was the album he was busy promoting but – unusually for ex-Beatles – this album was in the shops quite a time before the concert. It was also a success – strange as it may seem now, the fact that Macca had fallen out of the top 20 for the first time with this album’s predecessor ‘Press To Play’ (see our review for why you should never ever judge an album solely by its sales’ record) was big news. Actually, this album is some sort of grand last hurrah for McCartney, at least to date, containing no less than four top 40 singles (the most of any McCartney record) and containing his last really significant chart entries. In many ways this album, which came out in the dying days of the 1980s, sets a trend for all the albums to follow in the 1990s – its deeply nostalgic with lots of nods to the past but still firmly with its feet in the door of the future (as opposed to most of the noughties’ music which is shamelessly backwards looking, not that that’s always a bad thing). In many other ways, its shamelessly 1980s and has dated probably worse than Macca’s other efforts, barring the lame new wave of ‘Back To The Egg’. Yet even though the production values is a huge problem with the easy-listening-ness of this record, Macca has really upped his game in every other department – his melodies are clearer and his lyrics harder hitting than ever before and there’s a distinctly uncomfortable theme running through this record that’s a welcome step into the unknown.

Uncomfortable isn’t the first words that come to mind when discussing McCartney’s music, but as the many fans of his solo work will tell you the bite that’s present in songs like ‘You Never Gave Me Your Money’ and ‘Getting Better’ didn’t fade away over night. Together with ‘Ram’, this is the angriest, most peculiarly shaped record of Macca’s long career. It’s hard to put your finger on where the bad vibes come from, but they’re sprinkled throughout this record in lots of small, intriguing places – the moody orchestral beginning to ‘Distractions’ (despite the rest of the song being template Macca singalong), the spooky words about corpses and death in ‘Don’t Be Careless, Love’, not to mention the very real desperation in songs like ‘Motor of Love’, ‘My Brave Face’ and ‘You Want Her Too’ which are all pretty much unique to Paul’s work. Many of the songs here confront traditionally difficult subjectsm with the album bookended by songs about divorce and death. Actually neither subject is all that unusual for McCartney, who often uses darker, deeper subjects for his songs. What is unusual is that for once he's actively using the sort of music we associate with him - good-time sunshiney pop - to make the point. 'My Brave Face' begins with the typically breathless optimistic excitement behind almost every McCartney single from 'Listen To What The Man Said' to 'Say Say Say' but it's a song where the narrator crackles under his facade of happy-go-lucky clown, as layer after layer gets peeled away to reveal the narrator trying to make the best of being alone agin is an emotional wreck ('Now that I'm alone again, can't stop breaking down again!') 'Motor Of Love' is also a far more desperate sounding song than 'Eleanor Rigby' 'Footrpints' 'Little Willow' or 'The End Of The End', an admittance that even after all the right words have been spoken and time has moved on Paul's narrator is still lost, unable to 'get over your love'. It's taken a few albums across the decade of pretending to be younger in a series of unlikely contemporary settings, but McCartney is now finally all grown up.

 It won’t have escaped the attention of fans that three of the songs singled out above came from Macca’s all too brief collaboration with songwriter and Lennon stand-in Elvis Costello. Many of the reviewers of the time commented that Elvis gave McCartney a much needed bite long missing from his work, but that comment works both ways too – Paul’s more conventional melody lines gave Costello’s songs a hidden humanity and emotion missing from the main body of his work too. I truly believe that both men did their best work of the period together – just look at the Macca/Costello collaborations on Elvis’ solo work (So Like Candy and Playboy To A Man’ from ‘Mighty Like A Rose’; Veronica from ‘Spike’) not to mention the Macca B-sides ‘Back On My Feet’ and ‘Flying To My Home’ (both songs up to almost everything on this record) and ‘The Lovers That Never Were’ from Macca’s ‘Hope Of Deliverance’ album. Though the Lennon comparisons were perhaps a little overdone by a music press eager to learn more, Costello's acerbic tone was exactly what Macca needed and offered him more of a contrast than previous collaborator Eric Stewart had (whose sense of melody and love of quirky whimsy was at times too close to Paul's own) or Denny Laine (whose straightforwardness came in a quite different, good-natured way to Lennon's or Costello's forceful natures). Elvis' songs always tend to come with a sneer, despite the tender heart that often goes with his songs and the big thing he had in common with McCartney (along with a love of similar music) was caring for the characters in his songs aboce and beyond the point where most songwriters stop thinking about them and the characters arw what stand out in the pair's all-too-brief collaboration: the characters in 'My Brave Face' 'Don't Be Careless Love' and future collaborations 'Mistress and Maid' and 'The Lovers That Never Were' might never get a name but we instinctively understand them perfectly in glorious 3-D, all because of a few clever details (ironically 'Veronica', the one character to get a proper name, is probably the least developed of all their collabaorations). Like Lennon, Elvis' way of thinking even lingered after he'd left the sessions and even the songs on this album that are by Paul solo hint at something deeper and darker than usual going on just below the surface, McCartney's sub-conscious stirred to a new way of thinking by the partnership.

For Elvis wasn't there from beginning to end, just a bit in the middle, and 'Flowers In The Dirt' isn't really one album but at least three. The album started life as 'Return To Pepperland' in 1987, a poppier-still solo version of 'Press To Play' immensely professional but generally insipid singalongs designed to appeal to as wide a selection of the public as possible, made with the help of big-time producer Phil Ramone and celebrating (up to a point) the fact that it was 'twenty years ago today' since 'Sgt Peppers' came out. The two records, though, have little in common, the 1967 release creating ripples in the indutry still (however much its dated compared to the Beatle records around it) while the 1987 model is as blatant a bit of bandwagon jumping as McCartney has ever done. Simpler than usual for a McCartney album, like 'Pipes Of Peace' but with less guest stars, its leftover tracks will be gracing albums for years to come (notably 'Beautiful Night' which, to be fair, sounds rather better without Ringo’s puzzling contributions) with 'We Got Married' and 'This One' first tried out at the album's sessions and the 'Rough Ride' (by far the original record's highlight)  recording directly lifted from there. This was, to put it mildly, an odd move: 'Press To Play' was heavily criticised not for the over-cutting edgeness of 'Pretty Little Head' or the return of surrealism to McCartney's writing in 'However Absurd' but for the fact that it all sounded like it always did - an odd assertion for someone breaking that many barriers but that's what people said. Heading further into the 'empty pop rock' mode everyone complained about while keeping the one part of the album that didn't work (the 80s production) seems ridiculius in hindsight. It’s like hearing the under-cooked ‘McCartney’ and the overblown ‘Ram’ on the same record - critics would have eaten 'Pepperland' for breakfast and the 'tehn and now' Peppers parallels wouldn't have helped. Interestingly in the context of 'Flowers In The Dirt' all three songs that made the 'Flowers' album sound like comparatively lightweight songs but all were the heaviest on 'Pepperland'. Paul's confidence still shaking after 'Press To Play' got the worst reviews in years, he sensibly decided to shelve the majority of the project and flesh the album out with the collaboration with Elvis Costello.

Only this project too gradually unwound, with the sheer fun of the pair's demos heard on bootleg (and hopefully a Mccartney deluxe edition of this album one day) not translating onto the record. Macca had done what he always did with his demos and 'cleaned' the arrangements up for the record; Elvis was horrified, feeling that McCartney had betrayed the sentiments in the songs (which is why such winners as 'The Lovers That Never Were' and 'Mistress and Maid; were left for the next album) even though what ended up on album isn't actually that bad: 'You Want Her Too' has been rather Beatlefied while 'That Day Is Done' and 'Don't Be Careless Love' lose a little of their initial spooky mystery, 'My Brave Face' in particular benefits from the gormless charm McCartney offers before disintegrating verse by verse, with Elvis' nagging vocal in the choruses all but shaking him out of his facade to reveal his true self. It's a real shame there wasn't more of this on the album besides the four tracks - it would have been interesting, for instance, to see what Macca might have made of the songs that ended up on Elvis' albums, the retro rocker 'Playboy To A Man', the grunge shriek of 'Pads, Paws and Claws and the best fit of all these songs, the sunshiney-pop-with-teeth of 'Veronica'. The album's other five songs were then added in a third songwriting/recording session closer to the release date, the three year gap between records (in which McCartney effectively made three records) the longest by far up to that period, double the length of any previous gaps.

Either way, thank goodness McCartney changed his mind because ‘Flowers’ is a superior record in every way. I’m not saying it’s perfect – London Town and Ram’s as close as you’re going to get for that in Paul’s solo work I fear – but it’s weaknesses are unlike those of any other Paul Project and its strengths are usually Mccartney’s weaknesses. Firstly, Paul is back with a band this time around – but rather than the are-we-a-democracy-or-are-we-a-backup-band Wings, this un-named ‘band’ are the perfect halfway house between anonymous session musicians and bosom buddies who insist on having all their times in the spotlight. Alas that’s true for the concerts rather than the records – right now all we have is occasional guest appearances from all the players to come including the ever-popular keyboardist Wix Wickens and the Average White band’s Hamish Stuart, the ‘Denny Laine’ harmoniser and semi-famous name of the line-up. None of these are a match for Wings – the third McCulloch/English line-up at least – but they afford Macca a greater license to shine and adapt his intentions into workable ideas. Like many a Macca album, ‘Flowers’ is overdub city in places, but it works (just) because of the contrasts between epics like ‘Rough Ride’ and ‘We Got Married’ and the acoustic, almost-solo tracks like ‘Put It There’ and ‘Figure Of Eight’.

Even without the Elvis Costello shadow of darkness looming over the sunny McCartney skies, there's....something at work in this album. For ages I'd long assumed that Paul had lost someone close to him while making this record as its an album that's full of the big questions that often get teased out of songwriters at times like these. I'd even come up with the theory that it must surely be Paul's dad Jim whose fingerprints are all over this record, from the Dixieland Jazz Band who arrive out of nowhere for the dying seconds of 'You Want Her Too' for no discernable reason, to the 'Heavenly Father' in 'Motor Of Love' that Paul admitted was about his dad (a deliberate 'pair' with his 'Mother Mary on 'Let It Be')to his dad's ebloved saying 'Put It There' which was turned into a whole song. However now that at last (and against the wishes of my bank manager) I now have the internet at my fingertips I find this isn't the case: Jim McCartney died in 1976, right in the middle of the gap between 'Venus and Mars' and 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' and as much research as my paltry monthly internet limit allows can't find any mention of anyone close to Paul hwo died in between the last record 'Press To Play' and the release date of this one. No one from the Beatles world, his close family, the Beatles' extended family or even his school-mates seems to have suffered so much as a cold during this era. Which is odd because 'death' is the album's one constant themew throughout it's many shifting musical reference points and different writing and recording sessions. 'Distractions' is a song of frustration for not wasting time the narrator no longer has. 'We Got Married' looks back on a relationship with the finality of a man whose either signed the divorce papers or buried the coffin personally. 'Don't Be Careless Love' sobs over a murder. 'That Day Is Done' sobs over a life cut short. 'Motor Of Love' is a mournign song if ever I heard one.‘Rough Ride’ is to some extent about hoping you’ve been good to people or it might bounce back on you in the afterlife.  Even ‘This One’, ostensibly one of the prettiest little pop tunes Macca’s written since his Beatle days, is about wishing you could tell someone all the things you wanted to tell them when they were alive but never got around to saying. Even the title and its harrowing image, which actually takes place at a funeral in 'That Day Is Done' (and is perhaps the best and cleverest fit for all of McCartney’s albums, with life continuing even through death) is about as obvious a 'clue' as we've ever been given. Usually love songs for Linda dominate the sound of McCartney albums, but this time not even love remains: the closest we get to a silly love song on the whole album is either the jealousy-ridden 'You Want Her Too' or 'We Got Married', the most unromantic and practical love song McCartney has yet written.
Talking of Linda - and desperate now to back up my theory -  could it be that there is more to this album than it seems? Even this album’s love songs to Linda – and it seems there are many on all of Paul’s records since 1968, even as recently as last year’s ‘Fireman’ records – are couched in rather shadowy, mysterious terms (the best example is ‘We Got Married’, a nostalgic song about the pair’s rather public wedding but deeply private way of life soon afterwards but sung here as if it’s a requiem). The public only heard about Linda McCartney’s battles with breast cancer as late as 1995, but it’s not inconceivable, given the McCartney’s spurning of media speculation, that the couple new about the diagnosis as early as this album. ‘This One’ seems so much a part of the ‘Linda’ lineage – one that dates right back to songs like ‘Two Of Us’, ‘Long Haired Lady’ and ‘My Love’ – that I can’t believe it isn’t at least partly about her. Or perhaps I'm completely wrong and it was either somebody else's relative Macca was greiving for or a sparked comment that made him decide to write something along the lines of 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Footprints' again.

We also get a ‘theme’ (things not being what they look like at face value) running throughout the album, which works in a way that the alien-visitation ‘Venus And Mars’ couldn’t quite manage and the rock-stars-performing-on-a-radio ‘Back To The Egg’ hopelessly mis-judged. Many of Paul’s solo songs are dismissed as being all polish and no substance, but that’s certainly not the case here: ‘My Brave Face’ is all about hiding behind an easily-available act;’ That Day Is Done’ is about an enemy agent hiding in an audience, having second thoughts about carrying on his mission to assassinate a speaker at a conference (Ray Davies’ ‘The Informer’ from the same period contains the same message under a ridiculously pretty and graceful tune); CD bonus track (but we love it so, for once, we’re going to talk about it here) ‘Ou Est Le Soleil?’ is even sung in French, just to make sure we get the message (or don’t, in this case, seeing as the theme is about things being just out of our reach).

But, unlike most McCartney albums, this one is less than the sum of its parts. Few Macca songs sound drop-dead amazing heard out of context whilst heard altogether they can make for the experience of your life – by contrast, despite the wide range of themes and ideas across this album the awful 80s production values make it all sound the same, even when it isn’t. I’m always amazed whenever I come to a track like, say, ‘Put It There’ played at random out of my collection and I really stop to wonder why I don’t stop to play such lovely tracks more often. But whenever I hear it sandwiched in-between ‘We Got Married’ and ‘Figure Of Eight’ (or ‘Soliel’ on the cassette copy, which is how I still best know this album), I hardly notice it’s there at all. (I know this looks like a contradiction of what I said earlier, but its only partly so – the differences between epic and slight are here, it’s just that all the sounds have been ‘ironed out’ so that they all sound more or less the same’). Anyway, that’s just a small point to show why this album is on our ‘list’ proper because, while this album was better received than any McCartney album since ‘Tug Of War’, this is yet another highly recommended Macca album that’s been all but forgotten recently, even if its halo has slipped a bit in the years since it came out. 'Flowers' remains, though, a stronger collection of songs than normal, played better than normal, with a stronger production than normal - the fact that there are no all-time career highlights here, just merely very very good songs and recordings should be balanced against the fact that for once in his career and for the only time in this book McCartney releases an album where all the songs are nothing less than good and none of them are bad; those of you whove come to this review after 'Red Rose Speedway'  'Venus and Mars' and 'Tug Of War' let us down at the last minute will surely be joining me in a quick gasp about now. 

Onto the songs. [209] ‘My Brave Face’ seems like a good place to start, not just because it’s the opening track off the album but because it was the comeback single that spawned quite a lot of attention at the time (even if it didn’t actually outsell supposed flops like ‘Press’ and ‘Only Love Remains’ by all that much).  A classic catchy-but-deep song, its by far the best of the crop of MacManus/McCartney songs (MacManus is the ‘real’ name of Elvis Costello but one he still uses for publishing reasons, which is why so many fans were left scratching their heads over the partnership) which were all pretty good in their own way.  The song kicks off with Macca as we’ve always known him, thumbs-aloft, smiling at the world, acting as if he’s happy until the words gradually reveal bit by bit what an act that is and that the narrator is really going through something of a nervous breakdown. Abandoned and on his own, the narrator is looking to enjoy all the things he yearned to do when he was with his partner –but now she’s gone none of them mean anything to him and, in a couple of particularly memorable images, he’s devolved to the point where he’s throwing dishes away rather than face coping with them and accepting there’s nobody else to help him with them and that he keeps trying to write a ‘come back baby’ note that he keeps throwing away in disgust. This song sounds like one of those glorious ‘McCartney’ songs b(the album, not the artist this time) recorded during Paul’s own ‘nervous breakdown’ at the end of the Beatles days when everybody seemed to be against him and his music. Most notably, Macca tells us here that he wants to ‘pull the sheets over my head’ and ignore everything – which as close to a sequel to the superlative ‘Every Night’ as he’s ever written. We know, of course, that this is all an act – even if Elvis was the driving force behind this song – yet I can’t help wondering for the umpteenth time on this album – is this a worried Macca confronting the idea of life without Linda for the first time? A winner in every sense, ‘My Brave Face’ is a great way of kicking off your ‘comeback’ album – as majestically poppy and energetic as anything Paul ever wrote, but deeper and more multi-layered than usual, with the band working well together, even if the drums and keyboard sounds are a mite obtrusive, as they are on virtually every record from this period (check out CSN’s ‘Live It Up’ and George Harrison’s ‘Cloud Nine’ for two other promising AAA records undermined by awful production). Best of all, though, is Macca’s gutsy vocal which is perfectly suited to this song of changing fortunes, passing through exhilaration to desperation within three minutes.   

[210] ‘Rough Ride’ is unlike any other song in the McCartney catalogue. Dark and brooding, sinister and dominated by percussion, this song was apparently worked out in the studio almost from scratch (Paul just had a bluesy demo with the words ‘rough ride’ repeated over and over). Like many of Macca’s made-up-on-the-spot records, it makes for one of his best recordings, with the energy and creativity crackling in the air (from ‘Oh Woman Oh Why’ – the cracking B-side of his first single ‘Another Day’ to his recent ‘Fireman’ album ‘Electric Arguments’, they’re nearly all among Macca’s better work). Lyrically, this is more like a Cat Stevens song, with a frustrated and angry narrator travelling to the afterlife and panicking that he hasn’t spent his time on Earth well enough to enjoy his next stage of existence. This being McCartney, however, the message becomes a bit more straightforward than that and quickly develops into a discussion of friendship, with Macca’s narrator wondering where his friends have gone and why they seem to have abandoned him. Just to show how different this percussion-heavy song is to Macca’s normal oeuvre, he even adds a typically Macca-like middle eight (‘I’m not asking for an easy passage...’), with a melody that sounds as if its been around for eons and some lovely harmonies,  which comes in from nowhere and seems to exist outside the song itself (as if its the Earth sitting parallel to the afterlife?) Macca even seems to begin the song with the murmured and heavily echoed cry ‘break the wall!’, which suggests either that he’s toying with these ideas during the song or that he’s been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd records recently. Either way, this song is nicely adventurous yet characteristically vague and ambiguous, leaving the listener to decide how much they really want to read into the song.

Not many tracks to write about for the ‘flip’ side of the album, then – in fact there’s only three songs that I actively don’t like. The Costello collaboration [211]  ‘You Want Her Too’ is often hailed as the ghost of Lennon finally giving the solo McCartney a swift kick up the backside, but what I get from this song is two spoiled snobs competing for the same girl who doesn’t actually want to go out with either of them. McCartney is also a bit too quick to seize on his own image as being a bit of a twit (at least, that’s what some of the nicer reviewers of this track called him), but in actual fact he was every bit as acerbic as Lennon when the situation called for it. It’s just that, unlike Lennon, Macca always chose when to dispense his wrath – usually saving it up for Allen Klein or some Beatle-hating idiot with a microphone – and this situation of two competing lovers just doesn’t call for such high levels of hatred towards each other. I know, I know, Macca’s playing a part as he has so many times – but the pair of narrators in this song are even less suitable for the singers than the murderous Maxwell and his Silver Hammer. Peculiar. Oh and typical – the most interesting part of the track comes right at the end when we get a full-blown big band orchestra swinging their way through a great riff (composed by Hamish Stuart, apparently and originally played on guitar) only to have it fade after a few seconds. Macca’s gone on record as saying how much fun he had adding this ‘tease’ and going to such expense that he hired some of the best session musicians around just for a few seconds – but this is one of those jokes that are firmly on the listener; swing is pretty much the only style Macca’s yet to attempt (believe it or not he’s already done classical, rap, dance and trance in adition to the more expected styles) and this could have been a big treat. It’s also so out of place in this song and this album as a whole as to be totally head-scratchingly bizarre.

[212]  ‘Distractions’ pulls the same trick in reverse. As discusses, the opening thirty seconds, with scary strings pulled straight from ‘I Am The Walrus’ competing against some of the eeriest woodwind passages on record, paves the way for one of the most template melodic, lyrical love songs of McCartney’s record. Without the intro, this is the one song on the album you could imagine appearing on some other McCartney record, but with it we’re left to puzzle all sorts of things about this otherwise straightforward song and see it as a companion piece to ‘This One’; namely that we should get on with the important business of saying ‘I love you’ to our loved ones because they might not always be around to hear it. There’s something spooky about this record, with the orchestra pulling off the very Brian Wilson-trick of going in the opposite direction to the words (like a lot of ‘Pet Sounds’ and bits of ‘Smile’, the orchestration is stone-cold sober while the narrators are in a sea of either ecstasy or guilt). Unusually for this album, though, we get a pretty ending on a major chord, suggesting that the devils have all gone away by the song’s end. Lyrically things are more straightforward (and even has the typically love-struck rhyme of ‘you’ and ‘moon’ at the beginning, which is such a cliché its hardly been used since 1963) and full of typically Macca-ish couplets which display a fine eye for detail in amongst the romance. Whether you accept the song as a gloriously pretty McCartney ballad or an edgy song trying to tell us something between the lines is up to you – the song is a pretty fine attempt at doing both. 

[213] ‘We Got Married’ isn’t quite up to the same level as s song but as a recording its one of the best on the album. A simple song made to sound epic, this recalls several earlier Macca songs from the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ medley (four almost painfully simple songs made to sound something bigger) to ‘Ram’s’ golden pair of simple epics (‘Long Haired Lady’ which turns the line ‘love is long’ into a symphony and ‘Back Seat Of My Car’ which takes the complicated route towards a simple romantic date) and updates them for a 1980s setting. The highlight of all of this is guest David Gilmour’s jaw-dropping guitar at the end (yes, Macca had been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd then, as this piece is essentially a smaller and less operatic version of ‘Comfortably Numb’, albeit with a trumpet solo) which almost matches his earlier work on Macca’s ‘No More Lonely Nights’ single. Lyrically, this is a simple as it gets, recalling how Paul and Linda fell in love at first sight, began looking for a flat, had children, helped each other through troubled times and came out of it better people (it even has the oh-so simple, oh-so McCartney line ‘bought a flat, after that we got married’ and turns ‘marri-e-ed’ into an eight syllable word). But structurally this is deeply unusual for Mccartney as this song has no chorus, just four or five verses separated by a guitar solo, reminiscent of his abandoned experiments on the ‘Pipes Of Peace’ album (structurally this is a dead copy of ‘Sweetest Little Show In Town’, albeit with a smoother ride between sections this time around). Once again the bit of the song that catches the ear is the middle eight (‘I love the things that happen who we are and what we’re living for!’), which is when Macca finally drops the diary approach and starts telling us the significance behind the stories. This little sojourn into deeper waters helps set up the pay-off line at the end, too, which typically for this album is about missed opportunities and distractions getting in the way of things we wanted to say (‘Nowadays, every night, flashes by at the speed of light...’) and ends with the eerie chant ‘It’s not just a  love machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it’ (a line that seems more and more significant after Macca’s misguided if honestly felt time with Heather Mills). When ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ first came out, many critics called it Macca’s ‘middle aged’ album – while that description doesn’t apply to every track, its spot-on here. 

Middle age albums are usually called that because of songs about family and children. That’s unfair in McCartney’s case because his songs have quite often been about family and children – even when he didn’t have any of his own he was writing ‘Hey Jude’ for a young Julian Lennon and writing ‘Golden Slumbers’ to send his young step-sisters off to sleep. But [214] ‘Put It There’ is the best evidence yet of McCartney talking about his family directly – he’s admitted in several interviews over the years that ‘Put It There’ was an old Liverpudlian expression his dad used to use a lot when he and his brother Mike were growing up (sad that they don’t use that expression now as compared to most of the ‘traditional’ Liverpudlian expressions I hear nowadays from across the Lancashire border its rather sweet). In case you hadn’t guessed, the title doesn’t just mean a handshake, it means offering to be self-sacrificing sharing your troubles with someone else, ie 'You Ain't Heavy, I'm Your Brother' to paraphrase old rivals The Hollies, a self-sacrificing nature that Paul often praised his dad for doing even before he wrote this song. Yet this song doesn’t cast Paul as the son, he’s very much the dad so it may be that he’s promising to try to be the same role-model for his son James that his father (who was also James) was to him. Hearing Macca offering to be the go-between in his family’s problems, fixing troubles and showing his family ‘I’m your friend’ either make him the ideal dad or the sickliest writer known to man, depending on your view, but somehow this sweet little song avoids being sickly. The sprightly acoustic backing is very much f8unctional and getting on with the job, rather than pausing for dramatic effect, and the orchestral interlude – which sounds a little bit like an up-beat ‘Yesterday’ – somehow manages to reflect the mood without making it syrupy, as Macca if often wont to do. Although this song is a bit on the short side, it’s very very sweet and the simple acoustic performance is lovely, the sort of Macca has always done very well but very rarely outside the ‘McCartney’ album and in the context of the other songs about his father the line ‘as long as you and I are here, put it there’ makes even a cynic like me shed a tear. The quiet highlight of the whole album.   

[215] ‘Figure Of Eight’ is a flawed but exciting song. I wasn’t sure whether to put it in this album’s list of pros or cons at first, seeing as its perfectly balanced between the two, but its here on the ‘pro’ list simply because you can hear what McCartney was planning to do with it. This song is famously for its dangerously off-key vocals and has been much criticised for them but that’s the bit of the song I like. The story goes that McCartney decided to record the drums for this track before anything else – as was the normal practice in the late 1980s for some reason – and snag a guide vocal to help the drummer Chris Whitten along, either forgetting or not knowing that the vocal was being recording. Listening back in the control room later he loved the vocals and hated the drums, keeping one and discarding the other. Unfortunately, he then spent the next few days overdubbing like mad so we get here is a punchy rocker with an impressively rocky and screechy vocal that’s just been sterilised by the insipid backing which seems to be coming from a different room altogether. As anyone who saw the 1989/90 tour will tell you, this song was one of the show’s highlights live – on record it just sounds flat (annoyingly, the live version recorded for the horrible ‘Tripping The Live Fantastic’ souvenir sounds even worse than the record). Still, full marks for trying because this angry, frustrated rocker about trying to tie down a loved one who keeps going round in circles about what they want out of the relationship, is a promising idea with a gritty riff to boot.

[216] ‘This One’ is the album’s other highlight along with ‘Put It There’ and came close to being a hit despite the fact that the single came out long after the song had been available on this album (the scary and demented eyes-painted-on-hands promo video didn’t help matters much, either). Typically McCartney in its yearning melody, this song stretches Paul’s vocals to the limit, from near-falsetto on the ‘what kind of opportunities’ middle eight  to the growl on ‘fade to black’. Lyrically, this is the best set of lyrics on the album, tying up all of this albums’ veiled references to death and lost opportunities into one glorious singalong about accepting that you can’t tell the ones you love that aren’t there any more that you love them – but you can tell the ones that are. Another in a long line of love songs to Linda, this song is McCartney’s commercial and romantic instincts at their best but again without over-stepping the mark into sickliness. The song gets full marks, too, because it never quite goes where you expect it to – McCartney starts the song in the first person, with his narrator admitting his ‘coldness’ and saying that it’s his fault that he never speaks from the heart. This is refreshing to hear from a McCartney song (which are almost never in the first person, at least not in the 1980s) and is made even more special by the middle eight which all but admits that he took Linda out of her comfort zone when he married her and ruined her life to some extent (or at least made it far more complicated – or is he talking about his dad again here?) This middle eight is sung by Paul in his more ‘natural’ voice while the rest of the song is Paul’s slightly higher vocal, which he normally reserves for his catchiest songs which sums up the dichotomy of this song well – part hit single, part homespun confessional, this song is almost the perfect balance. And the twists aren’t over yet either: you expect the song to end on a happy note but it certainly doesn’t as the tune spirals gradually more and more out of control and the singers seemingly fall down a hole, to the tune of a melancholy harmonica. The one part of the song that doesn’t work is the pun in the title – the lyrics would have been perfectly fine sticking to ‘this one’ without the idea of ‘this swan’ travelling to the next world with a God on its back (a very un-Macca like image that one – had George Harrison been comforting his old friend with Hare Krishna philosophy, perhaps, when his dad died?)   
The second poor song here is [217] ‘Don’t Be Careless Love’. Not that it is that poor in the context of other Macca albums but on ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ it rather spoils the little hints of death and squandered opportunities by spelling things out for us so large that it hits us on the head with a brick. Yet on the other-hand it’s not clear enough – you can tell after a while that this song is all going on in the paranoid imagination of his narrator, afraid that his loved one is late because of some terrible accident, but before you get that far into the song to work that out you’ve already heard one of the creepiest arrangements on record and you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. It’s also a bit of a strained metaphor after a while – it’s easy to hear McCartney’s pained ‘I’m getting pretty tired of this’ as a comment from his tired brain on the fact that he has to think up yet another metaphor for his distress. We also fail to get any resolution to real this song – his lover does come back safe, but what did he learn? To stop worrying? Accept that things are out of his control? Or decided to visit a psychiatrist for why his mind plays such vivid imaginative tricks? Basically, this is a nightmare that we all share at one time or another and yet this song sounds personal and professional rather than autobiographical or universal. Even so, this song is not without its plus points – chiefly the a capella opening using spooky harmonies straight from a horror movie and the rare chance to hear McCartney singing the line ‘saw your body laid out on a rug chopped up into little pieces by some thug’ for the only time on record.

[218]  ‘That Day Is Done’ is one of those McCartney songs you either love or hate. The third Costello collaboration on the album, it falls into all the traps that usually sit there waiting on McCartney albums but not really on this one – its slow, sparse but still somehow overblown and almost excruciatingly dramatic. Yet, although it doesn’t make for easy listening, the arrangement of the song succeeds by placing the emphasis on the worthy lyrics rather than the plodding tune and Macca’s revelatory vocal performance. An unusually melancholy song about, you guessed it, lost opportunities, this time the object of the narrator’s affections really did walk away after one tiff too many and now McCartney’s narrator is left to mourn her absence. So far so ordinary, but this is yet another song on this album about death – and unusually, it’s the narrators. So subtle is this lyrical twist, it’s taken me years of playing this record to suss that out, but it’s there – the ex-girlfriend is at a grave ‘sprinkling flowers in the dirt’ after all and the narrator is kicking himself, not just for letting her go but the fact that he won’t live to see ‘her parade’, whatever that may mean. The chorus line ‘you know where I’ve gone, I won’t be coming back, that day is done’ is also pretty final. With such an emphasis on the subtle words, its no surprise that they read more like a poem than a set of song lyrics but the two Maccas haven’t neglected their music loving chorus either – the title line is another classic melody, full of yearning regret and bitterness. The conscience of the record, this is a worthy and admirable but sadly still rather dull song that shows how much Macca’s palette was being stretched in this period.         

But the worst excess here is [219] ‘How Many People?’ Both McCartneys adored reggae and indulged in recording their own versions of the style as much as possible – thankfully usually in private or on unreleased-for-30-years Linda Macca recordings. ‘People’ is one of the worst – the band try but just aren’t cut for the loose ambience and swing that the genre calls for and the result is one of the most boring and badly played tracks in Macca’s later-period career. What makes this song worse is that it’s a lazy re-write of a really great Macca song that not enough people know – ‘Too Many People’ off ‘Ram’ (see review no 47) – substituting the ‘stop making a fuss’ lyrics with ‘start making a fuss’ lyrics instead. The result is one of Macca’s weaker social protest songs, a strained attempt to sound moved at people standing up for events round the world but unlike Lennon’s work there is no real anger or passion there. Macca’s always been best at interpreting other people’s angry songs than writing his own (I’ll take his angry vocal on ‘All My Trials’ over his own ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ any day, even if the rest of the backing is a bit suspect) and this song is sadly one of the very very few in his back catalogue that I can’t defend against claims that Paul’s solo work is ‘toothless’. Really, for an album with such a long gestation period (eight years or so) and such a long playing time, somebody should have stood up to him and told him to take this track out. 

[220]  ‘Motor Of Love’ is the song many of the biggest Macca fans have latched on to from this record and I’m not surprised – it’s the distillation of the whole album, the one where Macca tells us he’s always going to be thinking of his dad in heaven and the powerful emotions coaxed out one of the career-best vocals from Paul in support. There’s certainly lots of impressive imagery in this song – from his dad’s mechanically-minded brain being the ‘motor’ of Macca’s drive to the classic middle eight which remembers the time when Paul was ready to give up on life (whether the post-Beatles breakdown or possibly even the post-Hamburg deportation or some other period in Macca’s life is unclear) and his dad talked him round. The song is also just vague enough to work as a universal song for pretty much all of Paul’s audience to identify with. And yet, despite its worth and Macca’s terrific performance, this song is still slightly too anti-clamactical for me being slightly too long, too slow and too smothered in 1980s synthesisers for comfort. Macca’s vocal is also buried for the most part, erupting only on the chorus and the pained middle eight when the other instruments finally shut up and allow him to exorcise his demons. Still, its an impressive song and offers more than echo of Lennon’s primal scream album in its admission that, even after a whole album on the same theme, Macca ‘can’t get over your love, no matter how hard I try’.

Still, three negatives and 10 plusses isn’t bad odds, especially for an album from the late 1980s when hardly any of the AAA members shined. So, overall, this is less a record of a few straggly flowers forcing their way up from the dirt than a little bit of soil to help the petals glow brighter. This is a fine album about timeless subjects which, unfortunately for us now, is stuck firmly in a box labelled ‘1980s’ (it even sounded pretty dated on release if I remember rightly, or was that just because during the 1980s I was only listening to records made in the 1960s?) The last truly great McCartney album (we’ve had some good ones since, notably ‘Driving Rain’ and ‘Electric Arguments’, but no classics) this is one his fans should find well-worth seeking out.

'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' (1976)

'London Town' (1978)

'Back To The Egg' (1979)

'McCartney II' (Original Double Album) (1980)

'Tug Of War' (1982)

'Pipes Of Peace' (1983)

'Press To Play' (1986)

'Flowers In The Dirt' (1989)

'Driving Rain' (2001)
'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' (2005)

'Memory Almost Full' (2006)

'New' (2013)

The Best Unreleased McCartney/Wings Recordings

Surviving TV and Film Footage

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part One: 1967-1987

Live/Wings/Solo/Compilations/Classical/Unreleased Albums Part Two: 1987-1997

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part Three: 1997-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1970-1984

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1985-2015

Essay: Not So Silly Love Songs

Key Concerts and Cover Versions

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