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Music Review: Paul McCartney – ‘Flowers in the Dirt’ [Deluxe Archive Collection]

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The tenth entry in Paul McCartney’s Archive Collection reissue series is easily the best in terms of quantity and (most importantly) quality of extra material. Flowers in the Dirt originally hit record store shelves in 1989, preceding McCartney’s long-awaited return to the concert stage. The album itself was received as a return to form following a series of disappointments (Press to Play, Give My Regards to Broad Street, Pipes of Peace). It was also ballyhooed as a showcase for songs co-written by McCartney with Elvis Costello. In reality, only four of the album’s 13 cuts were culled from their songwriting sessions. One of them, “My Brave Face,” was the album’s only hit single. But by and large, Flowers was far from representative of the work the pair did together.

What’s great about the new deluxe, four-disc Archive Collection set is that it presents a far fuller picture of the McCartney/MacManus (Costello’s birth name) partnership. The first bonus disc (and the only one included in the economically-priced two-disc edition) offers nine acoustic demos cut in 1987. These two-man performances brim with energetic joy. Sung as duets, these simple, raw recordings present two great artists relishing the very act of musical creation. Entirely devoid of embellishment or studio artifice, songs that wound up arguably over-produced on Flowers (“Don’t Be Careless Love,” “You Want Her Too”) are given straightforward, emotionally-direct readings. Also present are demos of songs Costello chose to record for his album Mighty Like a Rose: “So Like Candy” and “Playboy to a Man.”

The second bonus disc includes the same nine songs again, only this time recorded in 1988 with a full band. Again, they’re revelatory. The listener is left marveling over the fact that McCartney chose to include weaker solo-written songs like “Motor of Love” and “Où est le Soleil?” on the final album instead of the rockin’ “Twenty Fine Fingers” or the pensive (and melodically gorgeous) “Tommy’s Coming Home.” The versions of “That Day Is Done,” “Don’t Be Careless Love,” and “You Want Her Too” on this ’88 “band demos” disc served as the basis for the final masters on the released album (hence Costello’s co-production credit and presence as a musician and/or vocalist). Even so, there are fascinating differences to note.

Special note must be made of the two versions (one on each demo disc) of the McCartney/MacManus composition “The Lovers That Never Were.” The song saw official release when it was rerecorded for McCartney’s ’93 album Off the Ground. But on the ’87 demo presented here, McCartney’s vocal is truly special (boasting a level of power previously unheard from him on a ballad). The ’88 version is more nuanced, but also exceptional. While neither of these nullify the excellent take on Off the Ground, it’s jaw-dropping that McCartney put this one on the shelf instead of utilizing it for Flowers.

Sixteen additional tracks that really should have been a third bonus disc are inexplicably offered in download-only form. Grumbling about the format aside, there is gold in this stuff too. Three additional McCartney/MacManus demos are here: “I Don’t Want to Confess,” “Shallow Grave” (eventually recorded by Costello for All This Useless Beauty), and “Mistress and Maid” (returned to by McCartney for Off the Ground). Called “cassette demos” because that’s exactly what they are, these lo-fi gems are every bit as vital as the demos on the ’87 disc. Also part of the exclusive downloads are b-sides (including the killer McCartney/MacManus “Back on My Feet”), and single mixes of varying degrees of interest (a funky “This One” is cool, but four versions of “Où est le Soleil?” anyone?).

The fourth disc is a DVD that is far more robust than any that previously appeared in the Archive Collection series. The showpiece is the 65-minute documentary Put It There that documents the making of Flowers and includes lots of boisterous live-in-the-studio performances by McCartney and his newly-assembled touring band (not limited to Flowers material either, check out their smoking take on “Ain’t That a Shame” for instance).

There are also 10 music videos (including the awesome 8-bit Nintendo-inspired clip for “Où est le Soleil?”). “Paul and Elvis” is a thrilling featurette that presents fly-on-the-wall recording studio footage (including some radically different arrangements, like the Costello-led “My Brave Face” and a mid-tempo take on “Twenty Fine Fingers”). “Buds in the Studio” is another worthy featurette – this one focuses on McCartney working with some of the album’s additional co-producers (his “sex machine” ad-libbed version of “This One” is not to be missed!). “The Making Of ‘This One’ (The Dean Chamberlain One)” is an interesting look at the camera effects used to give the included “This One” video its distinctive look.

On top of all the audio and video material, there’s the behemoth box itself which houses four books. The main feature is the 112-page tome that covers all aspects of the album’s creation. A close second is the lyric book, which gives us a peek at reproductions of McCartney’s handwritten lyrics. The additional books (one dedicated to Linda McCartney’s album-art photo exhibit, the other to the aforementioned “This One” video) fall more into “completist-only” territory, but they help add to the “extravagant event” feel of this massive set.

Again, only one caveat in my wholehearted recommendation of Flowers in the Dirt and that’s the download-only issue. For the hefty price of this super-deluxe set, an additional physical CD isn’t asking for much. But given the quality of everything else in the set (including the tasteful remastering of the main album, sounding better than the original CD or ’93 reissue), McCartney fans should make every effort to get it.

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About The Other Chad

An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."
  • B J Conlee

    The Other Chad, Liked your fair review. I bought the “great value” 2 disc Set (for about $15.00) that included the “great” 2nd CD of just Paul and Elvis doing 9 of their collaborative tracks in an acoustic setting. Flowers is yet another example of Paul having a potential masterpiece if he could only separate the good to great tracks from the subpar songs. I love the 1st 8 tracks as a whole (including the production!) but it is the last third of the album that falters. As you said, he had so many significant better options. I agree with you that not putting “The Lovers That Never Were” was a huge mistake. That was one of the best Paul/Elvis songs. As you also pointed out… Back on My Feet (a B-Side), Tommy’s Coming Home and Twenty Fine Fingers were all better than the last 3 tracks of the original album. And let us not forget, he had another B-Side…his own “Flying to My Home” that was so much better than those subpar tracks. You needed another rock oriented song on Flowers so much more than the overproduced ballad “Motor of Love”. A little tweaking and with the right songs, Flowers is a masterpiece.

    • So, without “a little tweaking and the right songs”, is this yet another example of the third most talented Beatle still milking a largely unimpressive post-Beatles career whilst failing to ever step out of the middle of the road?

      • B J Conlee

        Mr. Rose,
        Would love to get into a debate…any time, any place. The 3rd most talented Beatle…are you kidding me? You obviously are bias when it comes to Paul. Most people who really knew the Band including George Martin, would say that Paul was the most “musically” gifted of the 4. I think you would agree (like most critics) that Revolver was arguably the greatest album of all time (or very near the top). Just look at what Paul wrote on that album…Here There & Everywhere, For No One, Eleanor Rigby, Got to Get You Into My Life, Good Day Sunshine. Paul was also the writer for Ringo’s song on the album…Yellow Submarine. Even John said, he liked Paul’s songs better on Revolver. 3rd most talented Beatle..I rest my case. By the way, Flowers in the Dirt was still a very good album. My point is that it could have been better. Paul was the most prolific Beatle but he wasn’t always the best at choosing his best songs for a specific album. And by the way, I will debate you any time, any place on Paul’s Post Beatles career. You probably never even heard albums like Tug of War, Flaming Pie, Chaos And Creation, Memory Almost Full etc. etc. HIs Post Beatles career has been very underrated as were the other individual Beatles.

        • No, not kidding at all; George Harrison was a better guitarist and John Lennon was both a better guitarist and a better singer. No contest!

          Wouldn’t agree about Revolver either, which is not even the best Beatles album, nor are Paul’s songs the best on it.

          I’ll best your list of triteness and whimsy (excluding Eleanor Rigby, which unusually for Paul showed some real artistry) with Lennon’s I’m Only Sleeping, She Said She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing, Tomorrow Never Knows, and even Doctor Robert or Harrison’s Taxman, Love You To, and I Want To Tell You.

          MacCartney’s post Beatles “career” has been a long, slow, decline into fake nostalgia and increasingly retrogressive music. Art? I presume it, er, left by the bathroom window….

          • B J Conlee

            The more you write, the more your ignorance just shows. Better singer, better guitarist etc. is just your opinion; not stating facts. But most knowledgable people will say that Paul was the most well rounded musician. Besides playing the piano, various guitars, drums etc. Paul is considered one of the best Bass players of all time by objective music critics. Paul was also the better “Performer” of the 3. Once John got older, he didn’t want any part of performing. In his own words, he was scared to death when Elton John brought him out on stage in the mid-70’s. George tried one time doing a world tour and he didn’t have the stamina vocally to pull it off. Paul has toured and sold out arena’s and stadiums incessantly since 1989. How many stars allow their band to leave the stage and sing and play songs like Blackbird, Here Today, We Can Work it out all alone in front of 30 to 50 thousand people. Not bad for a guy who’s Post Beatles’ “career” has been in a “slow decline” or can’t play the guitar or sing. Calling Here There & Everywhere, For No One and Got To Get You into my Life as “trite and whimsy” (in your words) is downright ignorant. Major stars like Emmy Lou Harris (1st 2 songs) and Earth Wind and Fire have covered these trite songs into hits. I’m not putting down John or George. They were tremendously talented but to act as though Paul was like 3rd rate in musical talent is just simply ludicrous.

          • OK, so my opinions are ignorance but yours are facts?

            Clearly your grasp of logic is as weak as your taste in music so for me this conversation is over.

          • B J Conlee

            Chris,
            Please no hard feelings. We don’t even know each other. I do apologize for getting carried away and my choice of a word or two wasn’t fair to be honest. We are both passionate about the Beatles. You like John and George’s songs better than Paul and I like Paul’s better that John and George. Neither one of us is right or wrong. You’re correct…they are opinions. One thing I think we will agree on…if you add up all four of them instead of 4 you get like 8. Their synergy was unbelievable and that is why they are the greatest popular music group of the last 60 years.

          • Gary Alsop

            Christopher Rose; you need to stop your rant ….you are only showing your ignorance.

          • I’m sorry, Gary, you appear to have lost the ability to differentiate between a politely expressed opinion and a rant, so where the greater ignorance lies I’m not entirely sure….