With Paul McCartney’s 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt due to be reissued next week, it seems like the perfect time to look back on what I consider to be his best work of the decade. Not only did it show that he was still a force to be reckoned with, it yielded one of his most successful musical collaborations in the form of Elvis Costello.
Flowers in the Dirt couldn’t have come at a better time in Paul’s career. His previous album, 1986’s Press to Play, received mainly negative reviews and reinforced the opinion of his detractors that he was ‘past it’. During his Beatles days he could do no wrong in the eyes of critics, but now that was no longer the case. What he needed was an album that would prove the magic was still there, and with Flowers in the Dirt, he delivered. It gave him some of his best reviews in years and reached number one in the UK album chart.
There’s a strong sense that Paul was determined to make the best album he possibly could. He worked with several producers (just as he did over two decades later on ‘New’, another brilliant album) and recruited a band who would also accompany him on the world tour that followed — his first since ‘Wings Over the World’ in 1975-76. This new set-up undoubtedly rejuvenated him.
It wasn’t just playing with a band again that brought out the best in Paul; teaming up with Elvis Costello had the same effect, not least because it reminded him of writing with John Lennon. Costello co-wrote four of the album’s tracks with Paul: ‘My Brave Face’, ‘You Want Her Too’ (to which he also contributed vocals), ‘Don’t Be Careless Love’ and ‘That Day Is Done’.
At times the music is reminiscent of The Beatles, particularly on opening track and lead single ‘My Brave Face’, a lively song complete with harmonies and the first use of Paul’s famous Hofner bass in quite a few years, thanks to Costello’s encouragement. At first, Paul “really resisted” the idea of recapturing that iconic sound:
“I said, ‘We can’t do this, man. This is me and John.’ But Elvis said, ‘It’s your style. There’s nothing wrong with it.’ He really drew me a bit toward the Beatles thing. He made me think, ‘Why am I being resistant to it? What is the resistance?'”
Resistance overcome, Paul continued to embrace his past on tour by adding more Beatles songs to the set. And that’s the way it has stayed ever since.
On the album, he also references the past lyrically on ‘Put It There’, a lovely acoustic track based around a phrase used by his father: “Put it there if it weighs a ton.” It’s one of many examples of family themes being used in Paul’s music.
Flowers in the Dirt contains a number of different styles; the aforementioned ‘Beatley’ sound, ballads (such as the jazzy ‘Distractions’), reggae (‘How Many People’), the bluesy ‘Rough Ride’ (one of my personal favourites), catchy rock songs (‘Figure of Eight’) and the gospel-like ‘That Day Is Done’, to name but a few. There’s enough variety to appeal to pretty much any McCartney fan’s tastes.
Quite possibly the stand-out track for me is ‘This One’, a brilliantly catchy single that’s almost guaranteed to get stuck in your head for days on end (that’s a good thing, trust me). Melodically, it’s McCartney at the top of his game.
Of course, not everything works. Flowers in the Dirt has its weak moments — I personally find ‘Don’t Be Careless Love’ a bit bland — but they are few and far between. On the whole it was a triumphant return to form for Paul and ensured he ended the ’80s on a high note.