McCartney Generation Nears Middle Age : PAUL McCARTNEY "Flowers in the Dirt." Capitol ****

POP STARS: ***** Great Balls of Fire **** Knockin' On Heaven's Door *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Ain't That a Shame

The most affecting moments in McCartney's best solo album in more than a decade remind us that it has been 25 years since the giddy exuberance of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

Where the Beatles' early work celebrated the innocence, energy and optimism of a generation that believed it truly was different, "Flowers in the Dirt" focuses on how that generation--now approaching middle age--is more likely to be quietly exploring the same sobering questions that people have raised throughout history.

If the 12 songs don't ever come out and directly ask, "What's it all about, Alfie?," the best ones do touch on root-matters of life; they are gentle expressions of personal and spiritual love, often set against the approaching gray cloud of mortality suggested by the grave-site image of the title.

The large cast of musicians includes Elvis Costello, who co-wrote four songs and provides a sharp, Lennonesque bite in the brassy, desperate "You Want Her Too." But McCartney's clear and disarming personal vision marks the most haunting moments: the parent-child affection of "Put It There," the romantic devotion of "This One," the prayerlike grace of "Motor of Love" and the nostalgic toast of "We Got Married."

One of the reasons McCartney's solo work has been so erratic is that he often finds it difficult to reveal himself. When he allows himself to be intimate, he can be an especially poignant artist. The best moments of "Flowers in the Dirt" showcase that intimacy.

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