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.