For much of his solo career, it was Paul McCartney’s peculiar fate to seem perpetually in need of a creative comeback. Chafing against the impossibly high standard he set for himself with his Beatles work, Macca required three years of wilderness-wandering and band-building to make his first Important Album, 1973’s Band on the Run. After that, he forced fans to suffer through nine years of steadily diminishing qualitative returns before finally (if only briefly) winning a Tug of War with mediocrity in 1982.

And so on, and so on …

By 1989 McCartney faced a new and unexpected challenge: restoring his commercial viability. Even such moribund albums as Wild Life and London Town had Top-Tenned during the 1970s despite critical drubbings, but the disastrous film and soundtrack Give My Regards to Broad Street in 1984 seemed to mark a tipping point in the public’s willingness to consume products of patchy quality just because they had the Macca seal of approval. In 1986 McCartney released the Hugh Padgham-produced, thoroughly modern (and not-half-bad) album Press to Play, only to watch it stall at Number 30 on the Billboard album chart and become his first long-player to fall short of gold-record status.

To his credit, McCartney responded with a retrenchment, getting back to his roots and recording the Choba B CCCP album of rock ‘n’ roll standards for release only in the Soviet Union in 1988. Even as that record (initially released only on vinyl) became a sought-after item in the West as an import, word began circulating that McCartney was in the studio with Elvis Costello, and the prospect of their collaboration goosed interest in both men’s forthcoming albums.

The first fruits of their combined labor appeared on Costello’s Spike album in early 1989, which featured the most delightful Top-20 single ever written about Alzheimer’s, “Veronica,” as well as the rockabilly throwaway “Pads, Paws and Claws.” Meanwhile, McCartney announced that he would embark in the fall on the biggest tour of his solo career – and his first since his 1979 arrest at the Tokyo airport, on marijuana-possession charges, led to the final breakup of Wings.

As a result, anticipation was high for the release of Flowers in the Dirt on June 5 – and was primed even more by the release a month earlier of the lead single “My Brave Face,” another collaboration with Costello. The album received a four-star review out of the box from Rolling Stone — a perhaps-premature assessment that has since been downgraded in the magazine’s Album Guides — as well as an avalanche of media coverage that touted the McCartney-Costello pairing as restoring Macca to Beatlesque heights of creativity.

Indeed, the songwriters’ joint efforts on four tracks – also including “You Want Her Too,” “Don’t Be Careless Love” and “That Day Is Done” – resulted in a lyrical incisiveness and (in places) a musical urgency that had far too infrequently characterized McCartney’s solo work. This, inevitably, provoked a chorus of “I told you sos” from critics who had long complained that the absence of an equal partner (like, say, John Lennon) had given McCartney carte blanche to dabble in too many dodgy musical experiments and too much sentimental excess. On the other hand, Costello said at the time that it was Macca who had brought a sharpened wit to the proceedings: “When we sat down together, he wouldn’t have any sloppy bits in there. That was interesting. The ironic part is, if it sounds like he wrote it, I probably did, and vice versa. He wanted to do all the ones with lots of words and all on one note, and I’m the one trying to work in the ‘Please Please Me’ harmony all over the place.”

Still, it must be noted that this quartet of tracks hardly represents a “Hey Jude”/“Revolution”-level achievement. Costello unquestionably got the better end of the deal, both artistically and commercially, with “Veronica”; “My Brave Face,” while possessing a few nice turns of phrase and some Beatlicious harmonies, failed to return McCartney to the panoramic sonic landscapes of “Band on the Run,” “With a Little Luck” or even “No More Lonely Nights” – and its mid-level chart success (even “Press” had done slightly better) reflected the track’s inability to overcome pop radio’s newfound hesitance toward his singles. It hasn’t aged well, either.

In fact, the best of the Maccelvis tracks here is probably the caustic duet “You Want Her Too,” which operates as an antidote to the saccharine “The Girl Is Mine” – replacing cringe-inducing lines like the Gloved One’s “You know I told you, I’m a lover, not a fighter” with Elvis’ “Why don’t you come right out and say it, stupid?” All in all, many listeners were left with a slight disappointment that more momentous work didn’t emerge from the partnership. But then, that frustration only mirrors the longstanding gaps between ambition and achievement, between expectation and reality, that have governed most of McCartney’s solo work. (At times – Back to the Egg, anyone? – those gaps have seemed more like yawning chasms.)

Nevertheless, Flowers in the Dirt had much to recommend it apart from the Elvis-related hype. There was the charming single “This One,” with its lovely melody and creative phraseology – though its charms wore off a bit over the full course of its four-minute running time. There was the gentle “We Got Married,” a typically McCartneyan paean to domesticity with just a touch of ambivalence (“Love was all we ever wanted/It was all we ever had”). There were a couple of ambitious (though, again, slightly underwhelming) sonic experiments in “Rough Ride” and “Ou Est Le Soleil” — the latter of which seemed like a throwaway in the context of the album, yet eventually became a fairly big dance-club hit and now is memorable as a precursor to his work as half of the Fireman.

And then there was “Put It There.” Short, simple and exquisitely crafted, it harkened back to some of McCartney’s finest songwriting achievements, from “I’ll Follow the Sun” and “I Will” to “Blackbird” and “Bluebird.” Had it appeared earlier in his career, it might have been hailed as a small masterpiece; instead, it was a fair-sized Adult Contemporary hit and a brief acoustic respite between Beatle hits on Macca’s subsequent world tour.

McCartney with Hamish Stuart onstage in 1989That 104-date, sold-out trek across four continents wound up serving as a template for at least two generations of rockers who have remained hugely popular as touring acts long after their record sales have dried up. Never before had there been such a dichotomy between an artist’s album-chart placement – Flowers in the Dirt peaked at #21 and achieved only gold status in the U.S., though it did top the British chart for a week – and his concert box-office figures. The tour was every bit as successful artistically as it was commercially, incorporating nearly a dozen Beatles songs that he had never before performed in concert, as well as a moving “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Help!”/“Give Peace a Chance” Lennon tribute.

McCartney parlayed this tour-generated goodwill into a pair of live albums in 1990-91. The two-CD Tripping the Live Fantastic was an obvious attempt to replicate the success of 1977’s Wings Over America album, but it somehow failed to document either the immediacy or the historical import of the 1989 tour. Much better was the more intimate Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), which had a real sense of occasion even as it revived interest in several tracks from the 1970 McCartney LP.

Sadly, McCartney reverted to form (and permanently squashed his radio prospects, if they weren’t already gone) with 1993’s abundantly mediocre Off the Ground and an attendant been-there, done-that world tour. And just like that, another creative comeback was required – one that would be achieved four years later with the Linda’s-illness-inspired Flaming Pie. And so on, and so on…

Buy Flowers in the Dirt from Amazon.

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