I woke up the other morning with "My Brave Face" in my head-the song if not the metaphorical object, heh, heh. So I found the cd from which it came in Partick's library, carted it off to work, and was astonished at the reaction it received. That album, Flowers in the Dirt, was released in 1989 by Paul McCartney, and you might think that alone would lend it some respectability, or at least nostalgic approbation. Instead, it was met by my fellow Cosmodemons with the sort of derision to which you'd think a former Beatle would be immune. Paul may not be my favorite Beatle (that would be George and you'll want to know it for the pop quiz), but he is undeniably one of the most agile songwriters of the past century. And probably better than anybody else's (I haven't giventhis exhaustive thought, so let me know if you can think of a better candidate) his work exemplifies what pop music is all about: love and joy in fleet, catchy packages. And he does it so well that his forays

Paul McCartney on the '89 Flowers in the Dirt Tour--Which Partick & I caught in Tempe

into classical music seem like slumming. When his former colleague John Lennon attacked this ethos, McCartney blithely replied with perhaps the most reviled song in his oeuvre, "Silly Love Songs." The first verse goes:

You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.
But I look around me and I see it isn't so.
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know, 'cause here I go again
I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you

Ew! Couldn't you just die? Thing is, he believes this stuff--and what is wrong with that? No, seriously.

I know the complaints against Paul McCartney. I've made them myself: too sweet, too light, way too sentimental, and so, so old fashioned. But listening to Flowers in the Dirt for the first time in years, I am persuaded that these criticisms are not so much wrong as stupid, and they melt like sugar on my tongue. His music is sonic and psychic ice cream, you might not want it as an exclusive diet but it is uniquely delicious and comforting. And while McCartney needs my endorsement even less than ice cream does, I would still invite you to listen up and take a bite. So to speak.

Let's take Flowers in the Dirt. I realize some might not think it the most representative McCartney album because a significant portion of it was written with Declan MacManus, aka Elvis Costello, as were tracks from four of their subsequent albums. But as with his work with John Lennon, his formation of Wings, and his endless promotion of his photographer wife, Linda, as a musical talent, McCartney has always sought out musical collaborations. The results have been as varied as those partnerships, with poor Linda bearing the brunt of some pretty nasty criticism. Costello, on the other hand, had an established career before he met McCartney, and a sensibility different enough from his to make him an interesting foil.

Elvis Costello & Paul McCartney at a benefit in honor of Linda McCartney

Compare, for instance, the rivalries described in the McCartney-Michael Jackson "The Girl is Mine" in which Jackson finally begs off by quipping "I'm a lover, not a fighter," (mm-hmm) and the McCartney-Costello "You Want Her Too," where the object of their desire is a heartless manipulator (rather than the lightly considered "doggone girl"), and the dialogue cutting:

I've got a better chance than you do
I know that you want her too
You're such a hopeless romantic
She told me you're predictable and nice
She only did you a favor once or twice

Predation and paranoia are atypical themes for McCartney, to say the least, and the anomaly is accented by an introduction that sounds lifted from a carnival calliope, and McCartney's sweet voice and calls are distorted and mocked in MacManus's sneering responses as if by a sonic funhouse mirror.

McCartney: I've loved her oh, so long
MacManus: So why don't you just come out and say it, stupid?

The song has a big showbizzy finale, and provokes the image of the singers taking a bow before a tattered red curtain while trumpets blare. It captures the seediness of a vaudeville performance in a way more purely McCartney homages (like The Beatles' "Honey Pie") couldn't. But there is a calculated artificiality to it as well, as if the artists--McCartney in particular because it's his album after all--couldn't take the conceit seriously themselves.

The McCartney-MacManus composition "My Brave Face" describes a different sort of performance. The singer begins by merrily describing his recently acquired bachelor status. Having kicked off the old ball and chain, he sings, "I've been living in style/ Unaccustomed as I am/ To the luxury life." Lyrically, this front lasts for two verses before he admits, "Ever since you went away I've had the sentimental inclination not to change a single thing." The music, however, remains insistently upbeat, hard-selling both the concept of his brave face and its absence so assertively that rather than canceling each other out, his excessive protestations undermine them individually.

It's a florid exercise, perhaps amplified (like "You Want Her Too") under the influence of Elvis Costello. After all, Paul McCartney was one of the most notoriously married men in pop music. For all the ink spilled about Linda's infelicitous influence on Paul's career (including the rumor that she was writing "his" songs and that's why his eighties output was so crappy), they had been a devoted and affectionate couple for twenty years when Flowers in the Dirt was released. Still, not even the most tender songs on the album betray a hint of taking her for granted. "Motor of Love," which begins, "I can't get over your love/ No matter how hard life seems" ends, "I won't steal anything from you/ You give me more than enough." The bridge of "This One," a song which rues all the moments the singer didn't express his love, asks:

What opportunities did we allow to flow by
Feeling like the timing wasn't quite right?
What kind of magic might have worked
If we had stayed calm
Couldn't I have given you a better life?

Even "Silly Love Songs" has a current of defensiveness and compensation.

When "My Brave Face" was released, its aggressive brightness sounded like a goof--no way were Linda and Paul in trouble. Even the harmonic emphasis McCartney put on the word "housewife" sounded like a pre-emptive appeasement for using a description she might possibly find offensive. But time goes by, and the breeziest of pop songs sometimes pick up baggage that can suddenly hit a listener with the force of a gale; and since Linda McCartney's death a few years ago, it's hard not to associate "My Brave Face" with a profounder separation than a break-up. "She was my girlfriend," McCartney said at her funeral. "I lost my girlfriend."

The best pop songs occur where glib meets profound, and often comfort whilst inflicting little twinges of heartache. They disarm and fortify, and lightly dancing, take me to that place where I can't find my brave face.

(Written by Sharon C. McGovern)

From Vol. 30
Back to Cobra Music

My Brave Face
(McCartney/ McManus)

My brave, my brave, my brave face

I've been living in style
Unaccustomed as I am
To the luxury life
I've been hitting the town
And it didn't hit back
I've been doing the rounds
Unaccustomed as I am
To the time on my hands
Now I don't have to tell anybody
When I'm gonna get back

Ever since you went away
I've had the sentimental inclination
Not to change a single thing
As I pull the sheet back on the bed
I want to go bury my head in your pillow

Now that I'm alone again
I can't stop breaking down again
The simplest things set me off again
Take me to that place
Where I can't find my brave face
Where I can't find my brave face
My brave, my brave, my brave face

I've been living a lie
Unaccustomed as I am
To the work of a housewife
I been breaking up dirty dishes
And been throwing them away
Ever since you left
I have been trying to compose a
"Baby, would you please come home" note meant for you
As I clear away another
Untouched TV dinner from the table I laid for two

Now that I'm alone again
I can't stop breaking down again
The simplest things set me off again
Take me to that place
Where I can't find my brave face
Where I can't find my brave face
My brave, my brave, my brave face

Paul & Linda McCartney in 1998