Music Review: Paul McCartney - Flowers In the Dirt - Archive Collection

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Since its 2010 inception, Paul McCartney's Archive Collection reissue series has been frustrating in some ways. Progress in rolling out these deluxe editions has been slow—the new Flowers In the Dirt set is the tenth in eight years. In addition to the snail's pace, there has been no discernible pattern in the order in which albums have been reissued. Packaging has varied from set to set (though the printed content itself has been uniformly excellent). Audio and video content has generally not been as comprehensive as hardcore fans expect (MIA single edits and remixes have diminished some sets; video materials have ranged from satisfactory to paltry). In fact, sometimes additional bonus tracks surface as free downloads on McCartney's official site instead of being included in the deluxe edition (there was a great alternate "Rock Show" that was available to everyone, but not part of the pricey Venus and Mars set). Even as I write this, there are two demo recordings ("Distractions" and "This One") available to all for free (in MP3 form) on the official site—neither of which is part of the set. This sort of mind-boggling decision is enough to drive fans crazy. 

Flowers In the Dirt is the most recent album in McCartney's discography to receive the Archive treatment. In terms of content it is easily the richest, most satisfying collection in the series. Where previous entries sometimes skimped in terms of bonus audio and video content (Wings At the Speed of Sound is embarrassing for its lack of worthwhile audio/visual extras), Flowers is packed to the gills. What's more significant, much of the non-album content is highly re-listenable. Though the actual Flowers album only contains four of McCartney's collaborations with Elvis Costello (credited by his birth name Declan MacManus), the Archive set seeks to complete the story of their work together.

The two bonus CDs each contain nine songs (same tracklist for both discs) co-written by Paul and Elvis. The first disc holds the previously bootlegged (but never better sounding) two-man demos that feature just the two artists harmonizing while accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars and piano. The second disc features the nine songs fleshed out in full band arrangements. Comparing the sparse demos to the band performances makes for fascinating listening ("Tommy's Coming Home" undergoes a radical transformation). The four that ended up on Flowers appear to be the same basic tracks that eventually became the album masters (it's still cool the hear them in minimally-produced form). The evolution of these songs provides a look at the album Flowers might've been had it remained focused on Paul/Elvis collaborations. 

rsz_flowers_in_the_dirt_cover.jpg The biggest downfall of this Archive Collection is the material that should've been included as a third audio CD, but is instead relegated to download-only status. On Archive releases past, B-sides and other previously-released related tracks were included on CD. For whatever reasons, McCartney (who is reportedly involved in all stages of these collections) decided that collector's and hardcore fans (the very types who are willing to shell out over a $100 bucks for such a set) didn't need Flowers B-sides and remixes on physical media. Download them, back them up, burn them to CD-R, try not to lose track of the files... it's an inexcusable crock of crap that leaves an ugly blemish on an otherwise superb package.

Most of these download-only tracks (provided as .WAV files in the advance review package) are indeed very difficult to find on out-of-print CD singles and were a McCartney fan's dream to have gathered in one place on permanent, collectible media stored securely within the box set. In addition to the 13 rare B-sides (including the terrific McCartney/MacManus "Back On My Feet") and remixes (the 12" "Figure Of Eight" is better than the album version), there are three additional McCartney/MacManus tunes billed as "cassette demos." Even considering it would spoil the nine-track symmetry of the two bonus CDs, these three belonged with the other demos. And by the way, all of the McCartney/MacManus tunes from discs one and two—PLUS the three "cassette demos"—all could've fit on a single disc. 

Amidst all the analysis of what is or is not satisfactory in terms of packaging and extra material, it's easy to lose sight of one of the main components of the Archive project: the remastering of the original album. I did drag out both the original 1989 CD and the 1993 Paul McCartney Collection edition (my preference between those is the '89 as the '93 sounds thinner) for a comparison. The difference in the new version is immediately recognizable: punchier bottom end and notably more separation in the mix, making individual elements easier to focus on. We're not necessarily talking 'night and day'-level difference, because the '89 master holds up quite well. But to my ears, the improvement is clear (and the loudness increase is relatively restrained—while I haven't opened up the files to inspect their visual form, it does sound like care was taken to preserve the dynamics).

Bottom line: regardless of what McCartney or anyone wanted, the correct way to configure this release would've been to add another CD containing all the download-only tracks. That's not a matter of opinion. Given that exactly zero of the previous nine Archive sets relegated material to download-only status (not including the aforementioned random individual tracks made available to everyone for promo purposes), this decision was an unconscionable mistake. I would not blame anyone for passing on the release altogether as a result.

Of course that's a personal decision and those who decide to take a pass will be missing out on an abundance of vital material. Unlike many of the bonus DVDs in past Archive sets, the Flowers DVD is packed with over two hours of material: no less than ten music videos, three featurettes chronicling the "Creation of Flowers In the Dirt" ("Paul and Elvis," "Buds In the Studio," "The Making of 'This One'"), and the excellent documentary Put It There (that originally aired on Showtime in '89).

One hallmark of the Archive Collection is the abundance of photos and detailed liner notes. The books included in the lavishly packaged Flowers are detailed on McCartney's official site. My review copy is strictly digital so, aside from an overall perusal, I am waiting to fully digest the books when I've acquired the full release (yes, despite my misgivings about "download-gate" I plan to buy it). Viewed in PDF form, it's clear that the same care went into the Flowers print materials as with the earlier releases.

Lest it seem like this is an unduly negative review, let me state emphatically that Flowers In the Dirt is the most comprehensive, endlessly listenable release to come out of the Archive Collection to date. It helps, of course, that Flowers is among McCartney's finest albums. The bellyaching about the downloads is a result of how much I truly care about Paul McCartney's music. As an unwavering fan, I invest a lot of listening time, thought, and (yes) money in order to fully appreciate his work. The absence of an additional CD to collect all the various previously-released material (whether or not anyone truly needs four remixes of "Où Est Le Soleil?" is beside the point) is an oversight that could've been avoided so easily. That aside, Flowers In the Dirt - Archive Collection is a tremendous collection documenting the late-'80s portion of McCartney's career. Hopefully the series continues.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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