As Flowers In The Dirt plays, so has anticipation. In 1980, when Paul McCartney departed from Wings to focus on a collection of drum-heavy demos, his critical cachet was at something of a low, having spent the majority of the 1970s tailoring to the types of audiences The Beatles were supposed to disassociate themselves from.
Now, a trim nine years later, the former Beatle was returning to the types of structures that had made The Beatles sound so sophisticated in the first place. In this regard, McCartney could be written off as a victim of his success, but Flowers is much grander than a nostalgic enterprise. Still, whether you believe this is more satisfying than electronic efforts McCartney II and Press to Play, or boasts less melody than Tug of War, it is certainly a deeply satisfying close to a decade that had threatened to write him off as a melodist or an item of furniture, destined to be closed off with the other ornaments from the 1960s.
Part of the album’s brilliance was in its production sheen – the uber-trendy Trevor Horn comes into sparkle his magic – but McCartney was making a stronger effort to recognise the type of album his critics and fans expected of him. It didn’t hurt that Elvis Costello – soaked in John Lennon’s influence – had contributed to the album, lacing the album with a sense of detached irony that suited the world McCartney was attempting to build.
Together, they sang ‘You Want Her Too’, showing humour that was long thought absent in the bassist’s wheelhouse since abandoning the art of glib portraitures on Ram, the scintillatingly produced record that demonstrated the full extent of his artistry and imagination.
Not that McCartney was comfortable with the role of a parodist-instead he posed what turned out to be a thoughtful question: how could he show his age, without dwelling on it? Part of it was using his children on the choruses of ‘C’Moon’ and ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ , but McCartney was also showing an interest in writing about his father, as well as his interactions with his children. ‘Put It There’ is the ultimate extension of these conversations, as the Beatle recalled the aphorism his father taught him, through a series of handclaps and nonsensical rhymes.
Then there was ‘That Day Is Done’, written in response to the people who were rapidly disappearing from McCartney’s orbit, culminating in one of his most haunting, yet fragile, vocal deliveries. ‘This One’ dialled the clock back to the 1960s, giving the album a frothiness that wasn’t too disimilar to the bounciness and sense of play on A Hard Day’s Night. These were among the best songs McCartney had written in some time, and the songwriter felt confident in the work to launch a global tour, his first since the dissolution of Wings.
There are trappings of Hornesque flourishes (the awful ‘Rough Ride’ is the worst offender), but by and large, the Beatle steers the ship according to his needs, and no one else’s. Horn felt relieved: “I was more worried from a point of view of going into somebody else’s world and being there for too long and it all becoming a bit too comfortable and easy or whatever. So, I wanted to try and give it a sense of urgency. Anyway, like I said, at first he said he wasn’t very keen on the idea and then the manager phoned me back and said, ‘Okay, he’ll give it a go, so you come on Monday.’ “
Costello advised McCartney to use his Hofner bass, when the songwriter appeared in the video for ‘My Brave Face’. It only added to the good humour and sense of delightful commerciality that presided in the song, although there was an obliqueness to the album that stemmed from the bassist’s sense of displacement from the world around him (“I’ve been breaking up, dirty dishes and throwing them away.”)
Clearly, he was happy to throw himself back into the orbit, armed with a bass and a collection of sophisticated songs. In many ways, Flowers In The Dirt encapsulates the decade it was made in: It’s deeply reverent of the albums that came before it but doesn’t return to these formative influences with anything but giddy intentions.