Listen to this track by self-motivated pop song interpreter and songwriter Kirsty MacColl. It’s “A New England”, her 1984 single of Billy Bragg’s original song that would get her to the top ten in Britain.
By the time this single was recorded, MacColl was a latter-day signee to Stiff records. While there, she’d record a few singles. But, it would be this one that would make the most impact during her tenure there, with a tale of a young person suddenly confronting the end of a relationship, corresponding with the end of innocence, too. It also talks about love and its complexities, and its power to create as much disappointment as it does to create joy.
Besides filling out the song in an arrangement full of jangly guitars and spacious production, it’s MacColl’s ability to carry the material off which separated it from it’s original context, and created a new one in its place. And the song’s author would help with that process.
The original take of the song appears on Bragg’s debut record Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy, and was a bit short for MacColl. So, Billy Bragg wrote two more verses (the last two) just for her. Those verses help to bring out this deep sense of disappointment even further into the forefront more so than it is on the original. Besides that, I think the key reason that those new verses work so well is for the same reasons that the original ones do on this version; they’re being sung by Kirsty MacColl.
Even from this early stage, it was understood that MacColl had a gift that not all singers have, which was an ability to know precisely what her own voice could do to serve the given source material. This version works because even in its original form, this is a song about people we’ve all met. In MacColl’s hands, it’s a song specifically about a girl we grew up with who isn’t an immortal pop star diva, but rather one of us. Like ourselves, she finds herself confronted by a need to find out who she really is as she grows from one stage of her life to the next.
When Kirsty sings this character who talks about “looking for another girl ” in this song, that other girl is the girl herself. This changes the meaning of the original song, and makes it a statement about seeking to be the best version of oneself, and not trying to define that identity in relation to someone else. That’s a powerful thing to say, and one using the original material as a means of saying it. This is what every cover version worth anyone’s time should do.
After her time with Stiff Records was over and her career as a mother began, Kirsty MacColl’s recording career would be characterized with her session work with other artists, from The Smiths, to Big Country, to Simple Minds, to The Pogues. But, she’d record five studio albums as a solo artist before her accidental death in 2000. In addition to being a talented interpreter, these albums would show that Kirsty MacColl was also a songwriter of tremendous depth, and with a wide range of musical curiosity.
Read more about this side of her career, and about her life in general in this article about her in the Guardian.