Flowers in the dirt were, of course, one of the most compelling anti-Sixties images of the punk movement: “We are the flowers in your dustbin/We are the poison in your human machine,” Johnny Rotten spat out on the Sex Pistols’ incendiary “God Save the Queen.” The harshness of the image makes it the sort of thing you would never expect to find gracing a song by the usually genial Paul McCartney — let alone serving as the title of his album.
But McCartney set out to hone his edge on Flowers in the Dirt, and he succeeds to a significant degree. Part of the effort involved writing songs with punk veteran Elvis Costello, four of which turn up on this record. It should come as no surprise that the lines in question — “She sprinkles flowers in the dirt/That’s when a thrill becomes a hurt” — occur in one of those collaborations, the spiritual-sounding but unsentimental “That Day Is Done.”
The McCartney-Costello partnership works best on the brashly assertive “My Brave Face,” which opens Flowers and provides its first single. With bracing production support from Mitchell Froom and Neil Dorfsman, McCartney starts the song out on a characteristically upbeat note, exclaiming, “I’ve been hitting the town/And it didn’t hit back.”
Intriguingly, a bridge intrudes after the second verse, telling of a lingering, painful breakup in the singer’s relationship. When the chorus kicks in, propelling the song in an utterly new direction, McCartney wails in his best rock & roll voice, “Now that I’m alone again/I can’t stop breaking down again.” The innovative arrangement and the intermingling of optimism and emotional desperation clearly signal that two master songwriters are at work, drawing on their complementary strengths and operating at the peak of their powers.
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The duo also team up to telling effect on “You Want Her Too,” a caustic thematic update of one of McCartney’s earlier superstar collaborations, “The Girl Is Mine,” with Michael Jackson. As McCartney and Costello trade off lines, McCartney’s ingratiating sweetness (“I’ve loved her ohhhh soooo l-o-o-ng“) finds acerbic — and amusing — counterpoint in Costello’s bitter, nasal retorts (“So why don’t you come right out and say it, stupid?”). This dueling recalls the charm of McCartney and Lennon’s exchanges on “Getting Better,” from Sgt. Pepper.
But the virtues of Flowers in the Dirt are not at all limited to Costello’s contributions. On “Rough Ride,” which is built upon a simple but insinuatingly funky guitar riff, McCartney invents a sexy drawl to explore the seldom-used but effective lower end of his vocal register. He also abandons the cloying literalness typical of his lyrics to fashion a suggestive little tale about “a rough ride to heaven.”
Similarly, on “We Got Married” McCartney employs a terse, telegraphic lyric style and a disturbingly urgent melody to complicate what might otherwise have been yet another of his ditties of domestic bliss. While avoiding cynicism, he hints, for once, that love may not be all you need: “Just as well love was all we ever wanted/It was all we ever had.” (Completists should also seek out the single version of “My Brave Face,” which, on its flip side, contains “Flying to My Home,” an appealingly ragged guitar rocker not included on the album.)
Flowers in the Dirt, however, is hardly an unmitigated triumph. Despite its right-minded dedication to rain-forest activist Chico Mendes, who was murdered last year in Brazil, the tarted-up reggae track “How Many People” never finds its groove. The Paulie ballads “Distractions” and “Motor of Love” meander, together, for nearly eleven minutes to no purposeful end. “This One,” likewise, extends its cute, lyrical conceit for too long and winds up taxing the listener’s patience.
Those soft spots weaken but fail to undermine Flowers in the Dirt‘s essential force. McCartney comes alive on this album, and if he hits the road, as rumored, this fall, he will have a half dozen or so new tunes that can ably hold their own alongside his standing repertoire. In the case of one of the finest songwriters in the history of rock, that’s no mean accomplishment.