Happy 25th Anniversary to Kirsty MacColl’s fourth studio album Titanic Days, originally released October 5, 1993.
The inevitable road to Kirsty MacColl’s sumptuous fourth album Titanic Days (1993) began unassumingly enough via an intense affection for pop music and songwriting. Music had been a constant presence for the Croydon reared British vocalist/writer since childhood. By 1978, MacColl’s passion had landed her on the roster of the Drug Addix. The post-punk band wouldn’t gain much traction, but her association with them brought MacColl to the attention of Stiff Records who onboarded her as a solo act.
From the beginning, all of MacColl’s record label tenures were unfortunately defined by poor artist management and conflict. Her sublime debut single “They Don’t Know About Us”—later re-recorded by Tracy Ullman in 1983—received a lopsided rollout in 1979 from Stiff Records. Later, when MacColl ventured to Polydor Records to draft her inaugural album Desperate Character (1983), it received scant promotion. A sophomore project was greenlit only to be shelved.
Eventually, MacColl would ink a deal with Virgin Records and her long-awaited second album finally manifested in the form of the universally praised Kite (1989). However, the sizable gap between the two records was caused by an unresolved contractual loophole that prevented MacColl from recording during that space of time. So, prior to Kite, MacColl busied herself with session work as a backing singer on efforts notably produced by her husband, Steve Lillywhite (Morrissey, U2, Dave Matthews Band). A resulting collaborative venture with The Pogues (“Fairy Tale of New York”) emerged during this epoch in November 1987. That hit charter—and a partnering tour with The Pogues—likely raised MacColl’s public visibility, helping her win that Virgin Records proposal.
Written by MacColl and produced by Lillywhite, the diversified collections Kite and Electric Landlady (1991) kept her critical notices strong. The latter even yielded a modestly successful single with “Walking Down Madison” in America and England, but MacColl couldn’t get a bigger commercial grip. Virgin, under direction from its larger parent company EMI, dissolved MacColl’s deal thereafter. These professional pressures coupled with escalating upheaval in MacColl’s marriage to Lillywhite cast a palpable melancholic atmosphere over the sessions for Electric Landlady’s successor, the aptly titled Titanic Days.
With MacColl and Lillywhite’s divorce, Lillywhite pulled back from producing his ex-wife’s material. Thusly, Victor Van Vugt—at that time known for his experience with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—stepped into guide Titanic Days. MacColl wrote the album nearly en masse with only minor co-write contributions from her musician colleagues Mark E. Nevin, Dave Ruffy and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
On the whole, Titanic Days parts from the eclecticism of Electric Landlady and recruits an inviting consistency in its place with an eloquent guitar-pop air. She embellishes—and fortifies—the acoustic infrastructure of the songs with melodic mechanisms that drive how fetchingly each piece plays during their respective run times. Entries like “You Know It’s You,” “Soho Square” and the title track are some of MacColl’s most tuneful and they lend themselves to repeated listens. Additionally, despite the mentioned guitar-pop nuclei of these tracks, MacColl also employs string arrangements that bring classical music color, scope and spectacle to Titanic Days.
Tonal variance isn’t completely discounted though; from the demurely Gaelic rhythmic pull of “Angel,” to the nighttime jazz of “Bad,” around to pseudo-bluesy swagger of “Can’t Stop Killing You,” MacColl breaks up the predominant guitar-pop sonic arc of Titanic Days when necessary. But, what gives these arrangements heart is MacColl as a lyricist and vocalist.
The album’s lyrical content is sourced from her separation from Lillywhite and is elegantly scripted on “Soho Square,” “Don’t Go Home” and “Tomorrow Never Comes.” In parallel, MacColl’s voice aides in the further articulation of her ennui on “Last Day of Summer” and “Just Woke Up.”
Once finalized, MacColl began shopping Titanic Days around for a label to serve as its host.
I.R.S. Records opened its arms to MacColl in the United States and at home in the United Kingdom MacColl paired with ZTT Records, an imprint founded by the prestigious producer/arranger Trevor Horn. Soon after, Titanic Days was presented for public consumption in early October 1993.
Critically, the long player performed to expectation. Chart-wise, MacColl’s problems continued unabated much to her frustration. Two singles were lifted from the album, “Angel” and “Can’t Stop Killing You.” On one side, I.R.S. Records was willing to work the long player overseas, but ZTT practically abandoned it upon its unveiling. In the end, neither I.R.S nor ZTT offered to extend MacColl’s contract upon completion of the Titanic Days promotional cycle.
Not letting the disappointment of Titanic Days define her, MacColl stayed busy. Galore—a retrospective compilation ironically commissioned by Virgin Records and curated by MacColl—was issued in 1995 and became the singer’s highest charting record in England. Four years later, MacColl’s fifth LP Tropical Brainstorm—a vivid homage to Spanish pop—landed on store shelves in March 2000. Released by V2 Records, Tropical Brainstorm met with customary critical accolades, but surprisingly certified silver. This minor commercial triumph represented a new beginning for MacColl that was tragically cut short by her death only nine months later in Cozumel, Mexico in a boating accident.
In the wake of MacColl’s untimely passing, her discography was rightfully canonized as one of the most unsung catalogs in pop music. Each recording is its own distinctive canvas for MacColl’s songwriting and singing, but none more so than Titanic Days which transformed her personal difficulties into high art.