Showing the confidence of a longtime champion, Paul McCart-ney refuses to hit the canvas and stay put.

After a number of batterings, McCartney's pleasant new album, "Flowers in the Dirt" (Capitol Rec-ords), is a valiant effort, a vindication of sorts, with several fine songs that are a joy to listen to. The result is a near-great set . . . but (to resume the sporting analogy) McCartney never quite delivers the knockout punch.The No. 1 mystery is why the LP is so mild. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with mellow.

It's just that McCartney teamed with often-acerbic fellow Liverpudlian Elvis Costello on four of the songs, some among the best in the collection, and only recently recorded a special album of old-time rock 'n' roll specifically for fans in the Soviet Union, much praised by those who've heard it.

One therefore might expect him to rock out a bit. But "Flowers in the Dirt" has not even one all-out roof-raiser, really.

The '80s haven't been kind to Bea-tle Paul. In fact, he's had a roller coaster of a time ever since the Bea-tles' demise. Critics and doubters have tried to count him down and out repeatedly since the breakup, but he keeps coming back with memorable classics: his first solo outing in 1970, "McCartney"; Wings' 1974 "Band on the Run"; 1982's "Tug of War"; not to mention nine No. 1 singles in America between 1971 and 1983.

But what a pounding the '80s have dealt him: first John Lennon's death, then an expensive flop of a movie ("Give My Regards to Broad Street") and steadily declining sales, until he hit the depths with his last worldwide release, the relentlessly forgettable "Press to Play." Michael Jackson out-bid him for publishing rights to the old Beatle song catalogue, then ex-bandmate George Harrison roared back with the best-selling album "Cloud 9" and No. 1 single "Got My Mind Set on You" and compounded his comeback with the Traveling Wilburys last year.

A string like that would stir most any longtime champ into determined action. And "Flowers in the Dirt" is a strong testament to Paul McCartney's staying power.

The first single, co-written with Costello, is the bouncy but bittersweet breakup song, "My Brave Face." The second Costello collaboration, "You Want Her Too," is also a great one, a caustic cousin to the McCartney-Michael Jackson hit "The Girl Is Mine."

"You Want Her Too" features McCartney and Costello alternating lines in a dueling duet: "I've loved her oh so long," sings Paul. "So why don't you come right out and say it, stupid," Elvis returns, with Lennon-like bluntness.

"Flowers" also features Paul the crooner ("Distractions" - which includes the unfortunate line "If you can answer this you can have the moon" but isn't quite as annoyingly precious as some of McCartney's '70s love songs), Paul of the pop ballads (the touching "This One" and odd "Motor of Love"), and Paul the reflective, middle-aged songwriter ("We Got Married," a tribute to a marriage that took some work, and "Put It There," a wonderful folk song remembrance of his father).

Although McCartney turned 47 only recently, his voice still sounds super, with range and variety. The song arrangements are crisp and aurally interesting, echoing at times the Beatles' experimental heyday (a sitar here, a brass section there). Without superimposing themselves upon McCartney's particular sound, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, the Average White Band's Hamish Stuart, Costello band member Mitchell Froom and co-producers like George Martin and Trevor Horn add to the new album's quality.

McCartney doesn't exactly break new ground in "Flowers in the Dirt," nor does he rock particularly, but the album is dotted with delights. Considering the overall mellowness of the collection, one almost wonders if he isn't deliberately bucking the beat-driven hard-rock/glam-rock/

power-ballad trend of the late-'80s music scene.

Nevertheless, the album is strong evidence that Paul McCartney can still write, sing and put together a decent set of songs a quarter-century after the Beatles first hit these American shores.

-PAUL, GEORGE AND RINGO all seem ready to tour this year - but the surviving Beatles won't be on the road together.

Paul McCartney has been preparing a touring band to go out in support of the new album "Flowers in the Dirt." The itinerary isn't set yet, according to various reports on his plans.

Ringo Starr, with an all-star band including Billy Preston, Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Clarence Clemons, will definitely go on tour. "I'll be doing all the songs you know and love," he announced, including his Beatle solos "Yellow Submarine," "Boys" and "Act Naturally," and hits from the '70s like "Photograph."

George Harrison and his fellow Wilburys have also been discussing a tour but haven't announced one for sure.