It’s February! Is the northern hemisphere finally getting warmer? Where I sit, no, it’s not, really. But you’re in luck, Persephoneers, because I have an album that will warm you right up. Tropical Brainstorm, the last album from the late, great, much-missed Kirsty MacColl, opens with a rill of Cuban steel drums and joyous voices cheering, and that gorgeous energy doesn’t let up until the final track.
Inspired by MacColl’s many trips to Cuba, Tropical Brainstorm is a lush, flowering album that plays in deep colours: turquoise, magenta and gold. Most tracks include a brass backing section or wild nightclub-esque piano; several songs have lyrics in Spanish or Portuguese. Through it all runs the strong, alto strain of Kirsty’s voice. She doesn’t have the range or technical prowess of Kate Bush or PJ Harvey, but her voice is down to earth, confident, the certain sound of someone self-trained and ready to share.
MacColl was 40 when Tropical Brainstorm came out; she’d been married and divorced to noted record producer Steve Lillywhite, given birth to two sons, collaborated with the Pogues on what is possibly the best Christmas song ever, and featured prominently on UK lady-comedy programme French and Saunders. Her career had waxed and waned, and the release of Tropical Brainstorm signaled a new resurgence for her.
Given her personal circumstances, then, it’s unsurprising that the voice of the singer on TB is that of a mature woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Listen to the lyrics of “In These Shoes?” a song that I wish I could play on the guitar, and which was used as the music for the Catherine Tate show:
I want to have a drink with this woman. She’s hilarious, outspoken, and she is in charge like Charles.
Other songs have the same effect: “Treachery” a joyful look at the pitfalls of fame, makes me dance in my chair; “Nao Esperando” makes me want to throw a suitcase together and fly to Brazil. The spontaneity present in the music is breathtaking; as I’ve never been to Cuba, the closest I can get is memories of watching the Day of the Dead parade in San Francisco’s Mission District as a band of dancers passed us in the back of a pickup truck. Everyone was happy; Spanish was thicker than English in the air; women in ruffled dresses twirled on the sidewalk.
Some songs are more reflective; “Autumngirlsoup” took a while to grow on me, but now I think it’s one of the best on the album. It likens the seduction and abandonment of the singer to a recipe, slowly adding ingredients like vulnerability and sex drive into a building heartbreak. “Us Amazonians” walks a line between emancipation and longing: “Us amazonians know where we stand/ we got kids, we got jobs, why do we need a man? / Us amazonians make out all right/ but we want someone to hold in the forest at night.” Listening to the last track, “Head,” feels like drifting out to sea, staring up at a sky as blue as the water that surrounds you.
Ultimately, Tropical Brainstorm is a celebration of starting over: whether you’re revitalizing your apartment, your career, or a love affair, it’s the perfect music for the task. By turns upbeat and solemn, always with a sense of humour, MacColl navigates the pitfalls of identity in middle age and emerges triumphant, ready to face the world again, born into a new incarnation.
Kirsty MacColl was killed soon after the release of Tropical Brainstorm; while diving with her family off the coast of Mexico, she was hit by a speedboat and died instantly. Her last act was to save her son. I’ll leave you with the opening song from the album, “Mambo De La Luna”, which takes on new significance now that Kirsty is no longer with us.