written by Matt Bernstein
No one has come closer to pinning down the elusive secret to making hit records than Berry Gordy, the figurehead of Motown, who gave the world that notorious maxim; don’t bore us, get to the chorus. While the geniuses of Motown parlayed that cliche into hundreds of classic songs, that same logic underlies the anonymous netherworld of oh baby’s and woah-oh’s and vague sentiment of the most mediocre pop music. But Berry Gordy knew the best pop songs don’t pander with generalities, they tap into the universal with specificity and detail.
“…When the world falls apart some things stay in place. She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case…”
In “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”, his minor hit from 1986, Billy Bragg narrates the small tragedies of a woman’s life with Motown for a soundtrack. In this tiny melodrama, the music of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong are the only comforts to the song’s lonely protagonist, and Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of perennial Motown favorites the Four Tops, figures as a sort of Christ whose tears represent the song’s only possibility for a modest redemption. The story is a familiar narrative of suffering, the kind that goes all the way back to Job, but it addresses itself to a modern, secular world. In a song with ambitions as high-flown as these, it’s natural that popular music should assume a position of almost religious importance.
It’s a romantic and perhaps foolish idea that a song can still escape its writer’s tiny universe and reach out into the world at large. Billy Bragg has always had a far reaching ambition in this regard. From his blistering debut, “To Have And Have Not”, to his notorious rendition of “There Is Power In A Union”, an anthem of organized labor, his work continually reaches out to a larger political world. This commitment lends his performances a sense of urgency. At its most purely political, however, his work sometimes barely skirts propaganda and at worst only narrowly sidesteps the kind of sloganeering that does a disservice to the ideologies it promotes. But at his best he weaves the personal and the political together so effortlessly, and with such generosity and empathy, that it becomes impossible to forget that one is never present without the other.
“A New England” is Bragg’s biggest hit and most enduring song. Straddling a line between folk and punk, it’s become a standard in both genres (other artists have even added their own verses). At a mere two minutes and fifteen seconds, the song is so teeming with ideas it seems as though it’s in a hurry to leap outside of itself.
“I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long…”
Time is already slipping away, so rapidly in fact that it seems to be tripping over itself, with the future arriving ahead of schedule. The first verse tumbles on without a pause to untangle the contradiction of its first two lines, and along with the lovers in the song the listener is thrust into a frightening modern world. Youth, the privileged age of rock & roll, is ephemeral, and already in peril. Somewhere ahead of the singer looms adulthood, which by the second verse becomes impossible to ignore with the arrival of a parade of ex-lovers pushing strollers. Innocence threatens to give way to experience as the romance of shooting stars turns into the menace of orbiting satellites. This is, after all, a Cold War era love song. But any reference to a specific historical moment points outward, toward a universal experience of anxiety in the face of an uncertain future, an anxiety of youth on the verge of adulthood. In the midst of all this ambiguity, the chorus arrives with an anthem for the ambivalent.
“I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl.”
This first statement is plainly ludicrous coming from the self-styled Milkman of Human Kindness. His first single, “To Have And Have Not”, was essentially a declaration of class warfare, so his propensity to evangelize for the left was already well documented by the time “A New England” was released. Still, it’s fun to hear him demur, insisting he doesn’t really want to change the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It’s a dubious proposition in the manner of Elvis Costello’s “I’m Not Angry”, where title is a bald lie, and where every furious chorus makes truth more apparent while the insistent objections become increasingly comedic in their futility. If the declaration is wish-fulfillment, there’s pathos in this desire to shrug off a troublesome preoccupation and instead go on in search of new romance. The last verse pauses for a bitter final glance toward the past before moving on for good.
“I love the words you wrote to me but that was bloody yesterday. I can’t survive on what you send every time you need a friend…”
The line is a bitter kiss-off, cut with a sort of resigned empathy. It’s hard to say if the rancor here is the youthful, sneering kind, or the kind that only sets in given time, if the generosity is merely naive or if it represents an adult emotional response. All this is perhaps typical of the time of flux described in the song, youth’s late period. This moment of belated adolescence seems to be lasting longer and longer, maybe because people are simply living longer, or, according to some anxious observers, perhaps due to some sinister generational defect. This contemporary handwringing at least does much to ensure the continued relevance of songs of ambivalence and anxiety. In this light, it’s easy to see how “A New England” could continue to matter across generations. Even though the song seems to be an anthem for the young, “A New England” is one of those songs that can grow up with a listener, giving way to new depths if experience manages to confer some perspective. After all, it is partially a song about the inevitable passage of time.
“A New England” succeeds in being a song that matters only as the sum total of its collected ambiguities, contradictions, denials and recriminations. For all its specificity and detail, and despite the references which bind it to its historical moment, the song still taps into common feelings of loss and uncertainty. And it still matters just as much as it did when I first heard it at 21, living in Connecticut, willfully mishearing the title until Billy Bragg was singing about being 22 years old in New England.
Matt Bernstein is a musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He sings and plays guitar in the band Wet Leather.