Washington Post, June 7, 1989

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McCartney's bright Flowers

John F. Kelly

Here's how Paul McCartney describes his song-writing collaboration with Elvis Costello: "I said to Elvis, 'Look, this is really getting a bit me and John {Lennon}. I'm being Paul and you're really being John.' I'm going, 'I've loved her so long' and he's going, 'I know you did, you stupid git.' I said, 'My God, that's me and John's whole style, I'd write some romantic line and John does some sort of acerbic put-down.'"

He said it, not me. Comparing McCartney-Costello to Lennon-McCartney is a suspiciously obvious critical analogy, but it happens to be inescapably apt.

There are only four McCartney-Costello songs on McCartney's new Flowers in the Dirt (Capitol), but they set the tone for the whole album, which is the ex-Beatle's best solo effort since 1973's Band on the Run.

It confirms the contention of many that all McCartney needed was the right song-writing partner. After all, no one is better at producing some of the essential ingredients of a pop song. Only Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Donald Fagen rival McCartney as a master of rock melody and harmony, and he's one of the best singers and bassists rock has ever produced.

On the other hand, he's a sentimentalist whose weakness for a soft-hearted melody and a soft-minded lyric has spoiled more than one of his songs. He needs a partner who can seize his best contributions and match them with a tough, smart lyric and a prodding, provocative arrangement. Linda McCartney was not that partner. Costello is.

On "You Want Her Too," McCartney belts out a glorious mid-tempo soul melody (reminiscent of the Beatles' "Oh Darling") with lyrics about a yearning love that he's reluctant to confess. Costello sings as McCartney's conscience, a grumbling, nasal voice that asks, "So why don't you come right out and say it, stupid?"

Without Costello the song could have been a catchy but vapid duet like the McCartney-Michael Jackson hit "The Girl Is Mine." With Costello, it becomes a succession of surprises: Tender sentiments are snarled at; polished pop arrangements are knocked off-balance by subversive parts; the final shouted soul chorus is followed by a music-box melody and then by a swing band.

The album's first single is "My Brave Face," a Costello collaboration that cleverly contrasts the singer's outer assurance with his inner doubts. It boasts a wonderful, unmistakably British pop melody and an imaginative production full of horns and ebow guitar that is ornate without sounding cluttered; it could have fit on the Beatles' Revolver.

The new album's title comes from "That Day Is Done," a simple but strong song whose gospel piano foundation as well as its philosophical acceptance recall "Let It Be"; Costello's contributions include some sly wordplay and a chord progression that stubbornly refuses to resolve on the verses.

Less impressive is the fourth joint effort with Costello, "Don't Be Careless Love," which features a shaky lead vocal and a misbegotten attempt to recapture the pre-World War II sound of British music halls.

Two other songs justify McCartney's fondness for lush harmonies by the sheer sophistication of their arrangements. "Motor of Love" transcends its origins as a formulaic pop hymn thanks to the intricate, multi-layered vocal harmonies that recall the songwriter's admiration for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

"Distractions" has a silly lyric, but McCartney's meaty Brazilian melody is perfectly framed by the nicely understated vocal, Hamish Stuart's acoustic guitar and Clare Fisher's brilliant orchestration. Using strings and woodwinds like Gil Evans used horns, Fisher never wastes a note in filling between the vocal lines.

"Rough Ride" is a chugging but catchy blues workout, but the rest of the album is devoted to filler such as the reggae exercise "How Many People," the ponderous rationalization of "We Got Married," the kid-music ditty "Put It There" and a truly silly love song, "This One."

The biggest weakness of Flowers in the Dirt is that the album doesn't rock hard enough; it's dominated by ballads and mid-tempo pop. The follow-up single should be "Figure of Eight," the album's only flat-out rocker, done on the quick with producer Trevor Horn (Art of Noise). Loose and a bit sloppy, it proves McCartney can still holler and bang his bass with the best of them.

The first McCartney-Costello collaboration was 1987's "Back on My Feet," which successfully combines "Penny Lane" street scenes, the bouncy industrial march of the Wings' "Let 'Em In" and the blunt conclusions of Costello's "This Town." It appears on an import-only, four-song EP, "Once Upon a Long Ago" (Parlophone).

The title tune was a 1987 British Top 10 single, an elaborate confection that sounds like an XTC fairy tale with a Brian Wilson chorale section.

The EP's other two songs come from the collection of rock-and-roll oldies McCartney recorded for the Soviet Union's Melodia Records.

Choba B CCCP (Back in the USSR) has only been released in the Soviet Union so far, but it's such a loose and rewarding celebration of rock-and-roll that it should be made available everywhere.

The album harks back to the days when McCartney screamed his fool head off with the Beatles in imitation of such heroes as Wilbert Harrison ("Kansas City") and Little Richard ("Long Tall Sally"). McCartney remakes "Kansas City" and tackles Little Richard's "Lucille." As he whoops it up over Mickey Gallagher's banging piano, the effect is as spontaneous as the old Beatles records but not nearly as sloppy.

The best part of the album is McCartney's broad definition of rock-and-roll — he romps through vintage standards by Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Leadbelly with the same irreverent sass he brings to those by Fats Domino, Arthur Crudup and Eddie Cochran.

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The Washington Post, June 7, 1989

John F. Kelly reviews Paul McCartney's Flowers In The Dirt.


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