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The word "underrated" doesn't do this album justice
on 9 July 2013
1989's "Flowers In The Dirt" was seen as a hard act to follow, given the widespread critical acclaim and the "return to form" label that accompanied it. Critically, "Off The Ground", recorded with Paul's then current touring band (with the exception of drummer Chris Whitten, who was offered a job touring with Dire Straits and was replaced by Blair Cunningham), didn't quite match up to its predecessor. However, it was the first McCartney studio album I bought on the day of release and I happen to think it's much better than it was originally received back in 1993. In fact, I think it's almost entirely excellent and one of Paul's most underrated pieces of work. I loved it at the age of eighteen and now, twenty years later, at thirty-eight, I still love it just as much.
My first encounter with the "Off The Ground" material was hearing "Hope Of Deliverance" on the radio on a cold winter morning in 1992, as I got myself ready for college. The first time I heard it, I wasn't overly sure whether I liked it or not. It sounded a bit almost religious and "happy-clappy" to my seventeen year old ears. I reserved judgement. However, the second time I heard it, it stayed in my head for a ridiculously long time and I was singing the hook for days afterwards. Fast forward a few months and I was in HMV in Birmingham when the in-store DJ announced he had a sneak preview of the Paul McCartney album which was being released the next week. He then proceeded to play the breezy "Peace In The Neighbourhood", which had a great, wandering bass-line, a lovely message and lots of gorgeous jazzy chords which completely blew me away. I was almost salivating when on Monday 2nd February, 1993, I went into HMV in Coventry, bought myself a copy and rushed home to play it. I wasn't disappointed.
Anyway, back to the present day (although remembering these moments in my life make me wish that buying albums still filled me with such youthful excitement and anticipation, but you don't seem to get the same rush when you order them online and they fall through your letterbox). The opening track, "Off The Ground", when you listen to it now, immediately dates the album. The McCartney & Mendelsohn production is a little soft, but it doesn't destroy the beauty of this song about finding new love, although the soaring melody of the chorus does go a long way to distracting you from the easy rhymes of the lyrics. "Looking For Changes" is a harder-edged track, an angry piece about the mistreatment of animals, and manages to get the message across well without being too preachy, whilst managing to being a good rocker at the same time. "Mistress and Maid", the first McCartney/MacManus (Elvis Costello) collaboration of the album is superb. The Costello influence is strong, both in structure and vocabulary, and this lyrically bleak but musically dreamy waltz-time story sees a weary wife, taken for granted, find the strength to break free from a dying marriage.
One of the greatest strengths of McCartney's songwriting is when he finds great meaning in sometimes the most simplistic things. "I Owe It All To You" is one of those moments he gets it spot on. In the verses he describes some of the most profound sights (Egyptian temples, eternal gardens, glass cathedrals, golden canyons) and then breaks into the beauteous chorus which states, "Oh, I owe it all to you/you make me happy". As far as lyrics go, the line about the "distant islands listening to the sea bird's song of joy" isn't too shabby either. The lyrically-painful "Biker Like An Icon" is one of my least favourite tracks on the album, although I have to admit that it has grown on my over the years (I enjoy the music, certainly) and the phrase "Biker Like An Icon" has a rather delicious taste to it. If Paul wrote an entire song around that one great random collection of words, I wouldn't be surprised. "Golden Earth Girl" is a truly captivating song, with piano chords slightly reminiscent of "Maybe I'm Amazed" introducing the piece and a delicate, delightful orchestration, with clarinets and flutes painting the musical picture Paul describes.
Probably my very favourite track on the album is the second (and last) McCartney/MacManus composition, "The Lovers That Never Were". A dark, magnificent and immensely beautiful paean to unrequited love, the tension and frustration seeps out of every line, the music builds up to a crescendo and, frankly, it gets me so emotionally involved, I feel almost exhausted and spent after listening to it. "Get Out Of My Way", however, brings you straight back down to earth, as it is nothing much more than a straightforward (but rather enjoyable) rocker which, if not for the brass joyfully punctuating the track and a decent bit of guitar, would perhaps be forgettable. It's perfectly fine, but it's the kind of song that McCartney could probably write in his sleep... and he's done that at least a couple of times. "Winedark Open Sea" is a gorgeous track which, musically, tries to take the listener to the very sea being described in the song, but makes the minor mistake of overstaying its welcome. The climax of the album, "C'mon People" was a blatant attempt to write a "big" song, in the same vein as "Hey Jude" and, you know what, he almost pulls it off. Lyrically, it attempts to motivate and pull people together, but the message itself is little vague and, as such, is slightly weakened. It's still a terrific song, though, and it builds up impressively to a dizzying cacophony of sound, just falling a whisker short of true greatness... but he wasn't far away from the mark. A snippet of "Cosmically Conscious" ends the album on a silly (but fun) note and one of Paul's most inspired albums comes to a close.
"Off The Ground" has now been in my life for twenty years and I am certain that it has been listened to in each and every one of those years. If people wish to dismiss it as one of Paul's lesser works, then that is their prerogative, but I believe that this is one of the most creatively rich collections of songs he has put his name to and, had it followed "Press To Play" in 1989 instead of "Flowers In The Dirt", it would be much more widely loved amongst fans and critics. I certainly count it amongst my favourite McCartney solo work and believe that future reappraisal of it, possibly when it is remastered, will bring a more balanced and appreciative reaction. However, as this is Paul McCartney we're talking about, who very seldom seems to get a fair hearing from much of the press, I won't hold my breath.