Friday, March 24, 2017
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - FLOWERS IN THE DIRT (Deluxe and Special Editions)
Conventional wisdom is that Paul McCartney hit a wall in the mid-80s, with the lame movie Give My Regards To Broad Street, some dire soundtrack songs ("Spies Like Us") and the over-produced Press To Play album. But he was rejuvenated by an inspired choice of co-writer, the younger, edgier Elvis Costello, as close to an equal as could be imagined. That resulted in the successful 1989 album Flowers In The Dirt, a true return to form. It's a nice, tight story, but that's not what really happened.
The hole in that story is obvious from a listen to Flowers In The Dirt. It's not that good. There are some truly annoying songs, and some dated production techniques, cheesy sounds of the '80s. His dance-pop fascination continues with "Ou Est Le Soleil?", and the much-vaunted Costello partnership yielded only four cuts of the 13. Those were the best certainly, but they are flawed, again by production, and there was a very awkward-sounding duet from the pair on "You Want Her Too".
The beauty of these special (2 CD) and deluxe (3 CD/DVD) sets is that we finally get to discover what went wrong, and more importantly, what could have been. What could have been is one amazing album, and it's here, only it's on disc two, called The Original Demos. Nine cuts, just Costello and McCartney, guitar and piano and harmonies, and seriously, this is the great Beatle-quality album everybody has always hoped would one day come from McCartney. Too bad he screwed it up back in '89, because heck, the whole world might have been different. There may never have been a Trump presidency. I'm serious, it's that good.
It's not Paul and John Pt. 2. It's two very very good songwriters picking up on each other's talents, and pushing each other to come up with something great. They were writing a song a day at McCartney's studio, then recording a demo. What's most impressive is the vocal blend, harmonies throughout, McCartney up high, Costello low. There are the four songs on Flowers, and ones Costello kept for himself, "So Like Candy" and "Playboy To A Man." Why neither ever used "Tommy's Coming Home" or "Twenty Fine Fingers" is just bizarre. Even "You Want Her Too," so forced in the final version, sounds great stripped back with the two singers digging in. For once, and truly, just this once in decades, McCartney sounds unguarded, and truly engaged. It's like somebody took that stick out of his butt too.
What happened next can be gleaned from comments made in a variety of spots, in the lengthy book that comes with the super-box, in the DVD footage in the same, and from new interviews that are showing up with the pair. Costello was apparently going to co-produce at one point, but they started to have different views about treatments. When McCartney wanted to explore a Human League-style approach for the decidedly gospel-influenced That Day Is Done, Costello fumed. Finally, McCartney decided he didn't want to make an Elvis Costello album, he had other things he wanted to try. The songs were split up, which was the original plan, and that day was done. Costello wisely held his tongue all these years, and the pair have remained friends.
Here's where I ask the now-obvious question: McCartney would rather go off and work with Trevor Horn than continue with these tremendous Costello songs? He's a confusing and frustrating musician too often.
That extends to this deluxe box as well. Fans are screaming mad because a bunch of material has only been offered in download form, an entire extra CD full of b-sides, alternate mixes and more Costello demos. You're paying top dollar, and you still have no physical copy. What do you bet this stuff comes out for the next four or five Record Store Days in a row, as everyone continues to pay and pay for what should have been including on a disc in the first place. The box is absolutely gorgeous, I'll give him that, but the bulk of that is in photography. Great of photography fans of course, a whole book of a Linda exhibit, another with stills from a video shoot, a reproduction of his lyric notebook, shots of the band, but really, there's a lot better art books out there. Kudos for the third disc, the next step in the demos, the more polished studio versions, and also, the DVD is very generous with all the associated videos from the album, a great feature on Costello and McCartney working in the studio together, and the documentary Put It There, which features his touring band in the studio playing live versions of the new songs and lots of old Beatle tunes as well, preparing to hit the road. That's a good thing.
Both McCartney and Costello have declared that the best work they ever did together was those original demos. I'll go further, it's some of the best work either of them have done in their careers. And you know that can't be bad.