The last thing Paul McCartney needs is more free advice (we'll skip the long-running joke that he'll take anything free), and the last place he'd be apt to take it is from the press.
But there's no way around the fact that Flowers in the Dirt needs help — more help than even a valiant Elvis Costello can provide — and two possibilities do come to mind. One, he should do a real rocker now and then; even the non-ballads here sound slow, which weighs everything down. Accordingly, two, he should occasionally give himself a three-minute time limit, just for crispness and spark.
This is logical not only because McCartney used to write great three-minute rockers with John Lennon, but because his own recent Russian album was full of three-minute songs (in spirit if not always in precise clocking) and it sounded great. He sounded great, too.
And he sounds fine on Flowers. He just doesn't have much to work with. The songs, a few passages excepted, are inoffensive and insubstantial, full of admirable but well-worn lines like "Love was all we ever wanted / It was all we ever had" (from "We Got Married") and "I wanna see ordinary people living peacefully" (from "How Many People," a reggae track).
The problem isn't so much in lyrics, though, as in the music, which is lush, full of strings, melodic and not very interesting. There just isn't much to grab on to, and there are passages (in "Distractions," for instance) where, much as one hates to think this, Paul is now creating the sort of music for which rock 'n' roll, all those years ago, served as an antidote.
Now there's nothing wrong with light, pretty music, just as there was nothing wrong with silly love songs. It also seems to faithfully reflect McCartney's life. He's 46, he's thinking about being happily married and valuing family ties ("Put It There"). He's wondering how come time flies ("Distractions").
Fair enough. But the musical result comes together less as compelling songs than the random jottings of a natural-born melody maker.
He has also written a couple of his traditional left field songs ("Motor of Love," "Figure of Eight") and teamed up with Elvis Costello for three of the album's highlights: "You Want Her Too," "Don't Be Careless Love" and "That Day Is Done."
"You Want Her Too," with its call-and-response style, is a cousin of and significant improvement on "The Girl Is Mine." "Don't Be Careless Love" includes bizarre passages about being careful while walking down a spiral staircase, and "That Day Is Done" is a solid goodbye song, with a noticeable Costello influence.
It's a promising enough collaboration that it's a shame we may never hear it go beyond infancy.
Otherwise, "This One," with a good Robbie McIntosh guitar, might be the best possibility for a hit single on Flowers. It's better than "My Brave Face," because it moves a bit more.
But this isn't what listening to a Paul McCartney album should be: looking for rays of light, finding flecks of gold dust here and there in a record that too often fades into the background even as it's playing.