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Listening to Macca #8: Flowers in the Dirt, Off the Ground, and Much, Much More

Posted on the 31 August 2019 by Russellarbenfox
Listening to Macca #8: Flowers in the Dirt, Off the Ground, and Much, Much MoreThis month, I had to admit to myself that one of the things I'm doing with this series is spinning a narrative about Paul McCartney's work and career, one that is somewhat self-interested. In my last two entries, looking at Macca's musical efforts after his great come-back-from-Wings album Tug of War, I was talking about an immensely talented musician who, through his 40s, seemed like he just couldn't fully engage with his own talents. Perhaps not coincidentally, my own 40s were filled with a sense that, for all sorts of financial and family reasons, I just couldn't move forward in regards to any of matters I really wanted to. Now, I'm looking at an immensely busy five years in Sir Paul's life, from 1988 to 1993, during which he turned 50...and it just so happens I also turned late last year. The work McCartney produced during this short span is remarkable in its breadth, ambition, and even its relative musical success....which, again, is at least vaguely similar to the renewed sense of excitement and accomplishment I'm feeling as my sixth decade begins. No, I'm not turning the mulleted McCartney of the late 1980s/early 1990s into my spirit animal. But I'd be lying if I didn't recognize that my reactions to his music this month reflect something personal as well. So take that for what you will.
Anyway, let's check off the accomplishments. In 1988 McCartney and a bunch of friends cut a quick, polished record of classic rock and roll tunes, to be released solely in the Soviet Union. CHOBA B CCCP (or "The Russian Album" as it's almost universally called) is a rocking collection of tunes made famous by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Leadbelly, Eddie Cochran, and more. It's all quite wonderful! (Paul's fundamental pop sympathies can't be denied though; the stand-out of the album, in my opinion, is his delightfully catchy take on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore.") In 1991 McCartney recorded a blockbuster of an Unplugged album, singing a fair number of Beatles tunes but also a lot of old blues and R&B numbers. It's also pretty wonderful! He's not a born bluesman by any means, but his renditions of "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "San Francisco Bay Blues" are terrific. Also, in 1989 he launched his first international tour in 13 years, diving deep into the Beatles catalog before adoring crowds for the first time, and producing an awesome live concert album, Tripping the Live Fantastic in 1990. And then he did the same thing again only four years later, once again drawing from the tour another equally fabulous live concert album, Paul is Live. (Poke around the McCartney fan sites and histories, and you'll find plenty of people who talk about how the band Paul assembled during this period, who played on all the aforementioned albums as well as the studio albums described below, was perhaps is best ever, with two great guitarists--Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders and Hamish Stuart of Average White Band--complementing his bass in the same way Lennon and Harrison had done years before.)
I'm not done. During these years McCartney also secretly released, as "The Fireman," Strawberries Ocean Ships Forest, a techno-dance collaboration with the English record produced Youth. It's cool! I was never much for rave music, but I can recognize good beats when I hear them, and this record has plenty. And then, still not done, he also released, to great fanfare, his first work of classical music, Liverpool Oratorio. I have to say, for the first time in this entry, this is something by Macca which I don't really care for. (Neither did pretty much anyone else, it appears.) I listen to classical music regularly, but don't consider myself familiar enough with orchestral forms to really, so take my opinion for a grain of salt. Still, if simplistic lyrics goosed up to an operatic level is likely to stick in your craw ("The Devil is evil / With a D. / And God is good / Without an O.") avoid this one.
That's six albums of music in a little over five years, and I still have to talk about his new studio work during this period, the music which all those tours were supporting. I'm happy to say, it's good--solid, engaging, and often really great pop music all around.
Listening to Macca #8: Flowers in the Dirt, Off the Ground, and Much, Much More1989's Flowers in the Dirt came first, and it's the better of these two albums, though only narrowly. McCartney reached out to Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for this album, genuinely and bravely trying to challenge and mix-up the ruts he'd followed into, and it paid off. While I don't think any of the songs McCartney and Costello are co-listed as authoring count as the album's best, I feel like I can hear the influence of Costello's sardonic, jangly, literary sensibility through the whole record. The best of their official collaborations is the lead single, the unexpectedly smart pop confection (with a ridiculously fun video), "My Brave Face"; "You Want Her Too" and "That Day is Done" never really coalesce into great songs, but the choir that comes in "Don't Be Careless Love" catches you by surprise. Elsewhere the album includes the drippy "Distractions" and the terribly overproduced (but still charming, I think) wanna-be gospel number "Motor of Love"--and that's it for weak points, I think. "Rough Ride" is fine light-funk pop, "We Got Married" is an impressively dark, rough, and passionate love letter (perfectly appropriate for a man celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary the year the album came out), "Put It There" is a short, lovely ditty (and thankfully polished into it's own thing, rather than being left unfinished and lumped into a medley, as was so often the case with Macca's folky and homely moments), and "This One," "How Many People," and "Où Est Le Soleil" all have their rocking moments. But the album's stand-out is "Figure of Eight," a driving number whose lyrics don't really scan at all but which McCartney, adopting a raspy holler, simply yells into near-perfection. The extended version included on Tripping the Live Fantastic is even better than the studio cut; it becomes a pulsing, bluesy, ferocious love song, absolutely the best surprise discovery I've had in this journey through Macca's work since I stumbled upon "Get on the Right Thing" way back in February. Overall, this is a strong B+ album, certainly up there near Band on the Run and Tug of War, and one that most any other artist might consider their masterpiece.
Listening to Macca #8: Flowers in the Dirt, Off the Ground, and Much, Much More1993's Off the Ground kicks off with the title song, which is a nice, shiny pop number, but not likely to be long remembered. Much better are the leftover McCartney/Costello collaborations "Mistress and the Maid," a bright tune with a spooky musical and lyrical undercurrent of danger and anger, and "The Lovers That Never Were," where the anger and frustration is banged out explicitly. The McCartneys animal rights-manifesto "Looking for Changes" is a worthy rave-up, while the emotionally--if not thematically--related "C'mon People" similarly serves as an engaging ballad. It's the little songs that're the best, though: "Hope of Deliverance" is a fun, upbeat bit of worldbeat music; the ostensibly square paean to domesticity "Peace in the Neighborhood" could have been a Motown classic; "Golden Earth Girl" is haunting; and "Winedark Open Sea" is plain beautiful. "I Owe it All to You" and "Get Out of My Way" are predictable and forgettable numbers, but "Biker Like an Icon" is a shock: as harsh and sharp and cool a musical story of misbegotten love as anything ever recorded by The Police (and with a video that looks like it was shot for a classic REM tune). This is solid B album, and a great way to bring this too-long entry to an end.

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