Sunday, July 05, 2009

227. Paul McCartney: Flowers in the Dirt (1989)

It was 20 years ago today. Seinfeld and The Simpsons debuted, and the Detroit Pistons, Calgary Flames, Oakland A's, and San Francisco 49ers were all champions.

This is the fifth in a series of 5 reviews of seminal (well, depending on your definition of the word seminal) albums from 1989. You can read the other four here, here, here, and here.

At one point, I was so consumed with Beatlemania that I made a goal to track down any Beatle-related album, including tributes, albums by offspring (which is how I came to own The Secret Value of Daydreaming by Julian Lennon), and especially the solo albums of the four lads.

What eventually led me to abandon this goal was Paul McCartney. Let's face it, the solo work of the Beatles is largely mediocre, with occasional flashes of brilliance. Paul has contributed his fair share of both the former and the latter, but what makes him more problematic than the others is the sheer volume of his work. While the other three have all released approximately 15 solo albums, Paul's number well over 20. Frankly put, that's a lot of crappy albums to have to seek out. So even though I abandoned my goal halfway thorough, I still ended up with an interesting collection, and some undiscovered gems. Flowers in the Dirt is one of those.

Though exceptions to the generalization abound, McCartney has gotten a rap as a sappy pop songwriter. It's true that his lightweight melodies often need an anchor (something Lennon provided that so well during that their time in the Beatles). Rarely has McCartney acknowledged this, but for Flowers in the Dirt he brought in the acerbic Declan MacManus, a.k.a. Elvis Costello, to be the Yin to his Yang.

The two co-wrote four songs on the album (four additional collaborative efforts appeared on Elvis' albums Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, including the hit Veronica), and as you'd expect, they're among the most memorable on the album. Though That Day is Done and Don't Be Careless Love both sound like Costello album filler, My Brave Face and You Want Her Too have a little more to offer. The former is a polished break-up tune with an ultra-melodic bassline, and the latter is a duet, with Costello playing the cynical foil to McCartney's optimist. For example, Paul sings, "My intentions are quite sincere" and Elvis follows it up with, "That's not what you said the other night." Sound familiar? It's the same dynamic Lennon and McCartney used, especially on songs like Getting Better and A Day In the Life.

Without Costello egging McCartney on, one might expect the other nine songs to suffer in comparison. They don't, mostly because this is the most eclectic McCartney album you'll find. Sure there're the expected would-be showtunes (the loungey, Wingsish Distractions) and cheesy-but-enjoyable pop (the brief, acoustic Put It There), but there're other pleasures too.

Some credit for that can go to Trevor Horn (a former member of the Buggles, Yes, and Art of Noise and producer for ABC, Frakie Goes To Hollywood, Seal, Pet Shop Boys, and many others), who worked on four songs. How Many People, about the death of a Braziallian rainforest conservationist) features a reggae beat. Rough Ride sound smore than a little Bowie-esque. Figure of Eight could be another lost Wings tune, with handclaps and a strong melody, but McCartney's loose vocal (even somewhat pitchy, if I'm being honest) keeps it from sounding too canned.

But the final Horn-produced tune is the most intriguing. Nowadays, McCartney is no stranger to experimentation (his electronic alterego The Fireman has put out three albums since 1993), but in '89 it was something new from him. Ou Est Le Soleil, the album closer, is chugging and funky, and wouldn't sound out of place in a club. The haiku-like lyrics are in French. Here they are, translated (who said 4 years of high school French were useless): "Where is the sun? / In the head / Work!"

Not every song works so well. We Got Married marries happy lyrics with heavy, dark music. Maybe it was Macca's attempt to show he could be could get down-and-dirty on his own, but it doesn't work. Motor of Love is a little bit like a prayer, but sounds like it should be playing over the end credits of a bad '80s movie. It's the only truly dated moment on an record released in a year crowded with dated albums (maybe that's because of the sighing synths of The Cars' Greg Hawkes).

Believe me, I learned through trial and error that most of the Beatles' solo albums are really not worth owning. Put this one on the short list of those that are.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Figure of Eight / Ou Est Le Soleil

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