As the 10th and latest release in the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, Flowers in the Dirt makes for an interesting, if dubious installment. The previous entries have included a spate of Wings classics like Band on the Run and Wings Over America, not to mention such solo landmarks as McCartney, Ram, and Tug of War.
Originally released in June 1989, Flowers in the Dirt was certainly a milestone in the McCartney solo corpus. In many ways, it marked a return to form after the lackluster critical and commercial reception that greeted Give My Regards to Broad Street and Press to Play. Flowers in the Dirt enjoyed a much better showing, topping the UK charts while managing to log a respectable number 21 in the USA during a particularly competitive summer season in those heady pre-digital download days.
But as far as the Paul McCartney Archive Collection goes, Flowers in the Dirt makes for a strange entry in the sense that it is difficult to gauge where the series goes from here. Does Paul reach back and begin taking deep dives with the likes of Red Rose Speedway and London Town? While the sales potential might be limited, I would welcome that kind of treatment for his second- or third-tier works if only to get to know them better. But as I noted above, it’s tough to imagine how the series evolves from this point forward without any more low-hanging fruit.
As for the present collection, I am happy to report that Flowers in the Dirt certainly merits the deluxe treatment afforded by the Paul McCartney Archive Collection. Slated for a March 24th release, the box set format is rounded out by plenty of previously unseen photo and video illustrations, but the real story, as always, is the music. And there’s plenty of it, to be sure.
The original album featured a number of standout songs, including the unsettling “We Got Married”—complete with a lacerating Dave Gilmour guitar turn—the heartrending “Distractions,” and the proto-dance track “Où Est Le Soleil?” A bonus track on the original Flowers in the Dirt release, the latter song always played like a bouncy, late-80s paean to the catastrophic effects of air pollution (“Where Is the Sun?”). In these days of rapidly accelerating climate change, “Où Est Le Soleil?” leaves one feeling positively nostalgic.
Flowers in the Dirt also marked McCartney’s last solo top 40 US hit in “My Brave Face,” save for his recent collaborations with Kanye West. To my ears, “My Brave Face” clearly stands as the high point of his post-Beatles songwriting partnerships—in this case with Elvis Costello. As the outtakes and finished tracks on the Flowers in the Dirt box set demonstrate, McCartney and Costello had found a solid groove in which to marry Paul’s rich sense of melody with Elvis’s by turns insightful and acidic lyrics.
In and of itself, “My Brave Face” makes for a fascinating case-study of the McCartney-Costello writing process in action. As the Flowers in the Dirt outtakes reveal, the song begins as a buoyant acoustic number. At its heart, “My Brave Face” is a deceptively simple domestic study about life in middle-age—that place where you’re no longer quite so young, but certainly not over the hill.
As “My Brave Face” moves from acoustic demo into a multi-instrument duet courtesy of McCartney and Costello, the evolution is striking as the buoyancy gives way to a subtle sense of terror. When you listen to the final Flowers in the Dirt version recorded with Paul’s studio band, the passage is complete, as the McCartney-Costello lyrics take on deeper strains of meaning, particularly during the last iteration of the chorus when Paul sings, “Now that I’m alone again / I can’t stop breaking down again.” The frustration and uncertainty in his voice as he attacks the phrase is palpable and brilliantly rendered.
There would be other highlights in the McCartney-Costello collaboration, including “Playboy to a Man” and “So Like Candy,” tunes that would be featured on Costello’s Mighty Like a Rose LP. As with “My Brave Face,” the demos in the Flowers in the Dirt deluxe edition for these songs are revelations unto themselves. Listening to them at this late date, I can’t help wondering what might have been if Paul and Elvis had allowed their songwriting partnership to go full flower.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.