The 1980s are generally regarded as Paul’s least productive period in terms of quality output. Between the relentless negative critical reception to earlier albums and his extended absence from touring, popular opinion was that his most creative years were behind him. But Paul proved this critics wrong with Flowers in the Dirt, a brilliant album that re-established his creative prowess and served as a launch point for his first world tour since the late ’70s.
Flowers in the Dirt was the first critically-acclaimed McCartney album in a decade, and with good reason: much of it harkens back to earlier years, with rich Beatlesque melodies, harmonies, and bass work. This creative surge was due in part to his collaboration with Elvis Costello, who co-wrote “My Brave Face,” “Don’t be Careless Love,” “That Day is Done,” and “You Want Her Too.” (Another result of the collaboration was Costello’s hit “Veronica,” which has a distinct McCartney feel; the full collaboration list can be found here.) Paul was happy with the partnership, noting that it had a similar feeling to his work with John, and it likely pushed him to create a more polished product than he had earlier in the decade.
In preparation for the forthcoming world tour, Paul recorded Flowers with a new band for the first time since Denny Laine left Wings in 1980. In addition to Paul and Linda, it included Hamish Stewart, formerly of the Average White Band, on guitar and bass; Robbie McIntosh, once with the Pretenders, on lead guitar; session musician Chris Whitten on drums; and Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards. This band stayed intact through 1993, and Wix remains a key member of the McCartney lineup to this day. Paul has said countless times that he thrives on being in a band, and the tight harmonies and sharp musicality here shows the chemistry and enthusiasm of this group.
From a distance of 25 years, this album has elements of an ’80’s sound that makes some numbers sound dated—more dated, in fact, than most of his ’70s work. But as we know, Paul has always been one to experiment with the sounds of the moment and incorporate them into his projects (the recent rumors of a Kanye West collaboration tell us that little has changed in that regard!).
But Flowers in the Dirt shouldn’t be discarded as a whole, even if 80’s music isn’t appealing to you. Not only does it contain some truly timeless songs, but the resurgence of creativity cannot be denied.
- “My Brave Face“: If the Beatles recorded in the late 80’s, it might have sounded like this. With Beatlesque harmonies, a lively melody, and a driving bass line, Paul (with Costello’s partnership) starts the album off with a bang. It’s also the first time in years that Paul’s signature Hoffner bass makes a re-appearance. Though the hard drum beat gives off an ’80’s vibe, it stands the test of time better than many songs of this era.
- “Put it There“: Don’t miss this one. The simple acoustic song is based on a phrase Paul’s father said to him as a boy, perfectly capturing a tender memory of father-son bonding. This is a classic with a touching lyric and a melody reminiscent of “Blackbird” or “Calico Skies.” Oddly, when he performed it live, Paul always added the end of “Hello Goodbye” as a tag. They surprisingly go together quite well; that version can be heard here.
- “How Many People“: Despite it’s cheerful, bouncy melody, this song is a plea for world peace with political undertones. The message is timeless and characteristic of Paul’s peace songs, and it features some excellent guitar work and harmonies.
- “That Day is Done“: This song is soulful, reminiscent of a traditional spiritual. While it’s not characteristic of Paul’s work, possibly because of the Costello collaboration, it’s gorgeous. It’s also where the album title comes from, in case you were wondering.
These songs shine in a live context. In addition to Tripping the Live Fantastic, the 89/90 tour album, a hard-to-find video called Put it There: the Making of Flowers in the Dirt interviews Paul about his creative process at the time, and shows the band rehearsing and playing songs from the album. Another great source of live versions is in the movie Get Back, a highlight video of the 89/90 world tour.
Bottom Line: If you can get past the ’80s feel, which might take a few listens, it may rank among your favorites. For longtime fans, it will bring back great memories of a magical world tour.