Sunday, December 31, 2006

A New England (Extended Version) (1984) – Kirsty MacColl (Billy Bragg)

In the ‘80s, the best remixes and extended versions transcended the original mixes not merely by prolonging their duration, but by stripping them down to their compositional rudiments, illuminating something that was previously buried beneath the mix, introducing adscititious elements that furthered the song’s spirit, recasting the components in an arrangement that emerged metamorphosed to reward the listener with a new musical perspective. New Order’s Extended Version of “The Perfect Kiss,” Walter Turbitt’s Mystery Mix of Big Country’s “The Teacher,” and Julian Mendelssohn’s The Full Horror mix of Pet Shop Boys’ “Suburbia” are but a few which exemplify this ideal. Arguably at the top of the list are Shep Pettibone’s Extended Dance Remix of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and Steve Lillywhite’s Extended Version of his late former wife Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England.” So richly does Lillywhite’s re-imagining reverberate in the sensibilities of astute reconfiguration, that it seems apropos to consider the evolution of the song from Billy Bragg composition to MacColl cover to Lillywhite remix in order to understand the value added.

Bragg’s words betray a crisis at the cusp of adulthood that finds him at once defensive about his stagnancy and pitiable in his disappointments. To cope with his loneliness, he tries to debase the girl least likely to love him by recasting her as the university harlot he graciously dismisses. He ambivalently mulls over the letters he occasionally receives from her, like paltry consolation prizes. Still, he wonders why, amidst his desperation to move forward, what little he desires continues to elude him: he’s not seeking sweeping social or political change, he just wants to find someone to take his mind off of her.

Whereas Bragg underscores his desolation with the accompaniment of a lone hollowbody electric guitar, MacColl proclaims her bitterness amid a full-fledged kinetic arrangement. Bragg penned additional lyrics specifically for MacColl, as caustic as they are clever. MacColl becomes Bragg’s counterpart—the girl who haunts him, yet who is unable to rid herself of the vestiges of their erstwhile relationship. One is free to choose the protagonist with whom to empathize in this bifurcated saga.

In turn, Lillywhite’s reworking salvages Bragg’s despair and MacColl’s resentment, restoring them to triumphant effect. The programmed drum patterns pound more resolutely, as if in defiance of the radio-friendly limits imposed by a 7” slab of vinyl. Generously lavished reverb carries the dilatant momentum of regal guitars and MacColl’s canorous multi-part vocals across the sonic expanse. The frenetic digital-delayed guitar riff camouflaged in the single mix now flutters briskly in the spotlight over stepping stones of gritty bass flouncing like henchmen with an agenda, eventually yielding to a ringing tapestry of meticulously-picked Marresque Rickenbacker jangle. Previously unused and latent vocal harmonies are given new life apart from the main vocal melody, pleasantly revealing untapped complexions. The expanded instrumental break evokes a springtime Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, complete with joyous puffs of panpipe. For all its inherent dissatisfaction and drama, the song becomes an affair more celebratory than sour.

Although lasting nearly 8 minutes, rather than overextending itself, Lillywhite’s treatment leaves the impression that the single version was in a hurry, anxious to find direction in a course of uncertainty. Given time to explore, “A New England” discovers in its protracted form where it means to go.

  • Listen to "A New England" (Extended Version) and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • No comments: