Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Nick Laird-Clowes had become friends with Paul Simon. One day he played Simon a chorus that had yet to find verses or a bridge; Simon told him that if he could build a song around it, he’d have a hit. “What are you going to call it – ‘Ah Hey Ma Ma Ma’?” Simon asked. Laird-Clowes said no, it would be called “Morning Lasted All Day.” Simon shot that down. After giving it some more thought, Laird-Clowes asked how “Life in a Northern Town” sounded; Simon said it was a great title, and the rest is what we here at Cover Me like to call history.
Back in 1985, the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” sounded like nothing else on the radio; today, that remains the case. A baroque-pop song with elements of folk, classical, and African chanting, it was simultaneously evocative of a bygone era and remote of any era, be it past, present, or future. Such a timeless piece could never be topped – certainly the Dream Academy weren’t able to do it – and on the various ’80s compilations that feature it, “Life” remains an island, remote and unapproachable.
Well, that’s not quite true – some artists have ginned up the gumption to approach “Life in a Northern Town” and bring it back to the world at large. It may have changed in their hands, but they deserve full credit for making a voyage that asked no quarter and offered none. These five versions are worth well more than twenty-five cents.
MP3: Sugarland – Life in a Northern Town (The Dream Academy cover)
“Life in a Northern Town” became a minor hit on the country charts in 2007, when Sugarland performed it live with Little Big Town and Jake Owen. They deserve all the credit in the world for infusing such a rain-infested song with so much warmth.
MP3: Sexton Blake – Life in a Northern Town (The Dream Academy cover)
Another 2007 release was Sexton Blake Plays the Hits!, which saw the Northwesterners producing a baker’s dozen covers ranging from Elton John to Milli Vanilli. While some of the songs have been slapped with the “cheesy” label, these performances were anything but – somewhere between straight-faced and devoted, all cut from the same indie-pop cloth. The Blake’s “Life in a Northern Town” is a touch more alienated, but no less listenable for it.
MP3: NEeMA – Life in a Northern Town (The Dream Academy cover)
NEeMA is a Canadian singer/songwriter who has worked with Arcade Fire and Leonard Cohen. She peels back the layers of “Life in a Northern Town,” revealing the song’s core, strong as it’s ever been if not stronger. Her web page, with its fascinating blog, can be found here.
MP3: Stephaniesid – Life in a Northern Town (The Dream Academy cover)
Stephaniesid’s cover of “Life in a Northern Town” has appeared on Cover Me before, but it’s worth another look/listen, as they marry sprightly instruments to a martial drumbeat and wind up with a sad song that hasn’t even a hint of sadness to it.
MP3: Rick Springfield – Life in a Northern Town (The Dream Academy cover)
In 2005, Rick Springfield released The Day After Yesterday, a collection of songs that he wished he’d written (one of which, “Cry,” he did). His big-hits years may have been behind him, but “Life in a Northern Town” shows he still knew what it took to put a song across. I want to tell him that I love it, but the point is probably moot.