Billy Bragg’s fourth album was released in 1991. I bought it the week it came out in possibly the least user-friendly format imaginable: a box set of eight separate seven inch singles. To listen to the whole thing front to back required 16 visits to the turntable. Inevitably this ended up in – encouraged even – dipping in and out in a highly manual form of skipping tracks. I remember different songs getting heavy play at different times and others languishing, their names only firing distant recollection.
I’m listening to it now for what I would guess is the first time in around 15 years. How come I can sing all the songs, either completely or in part?
‘Everywhere’, the earnest, Seeger-indebted, but similarly pure and un-swerveable paean to interred Japanese Americans.
‘Sexuality’, one of his more forced songs but still brimming with pleasure, shanks to Johnny Marr’s effervescent guitar playing and some of Bragg’s best, if almost completely out of context, couplets (‘I had an Uncle who once played/For Red Star Belgrade/He said some things are really best left unspoken/ But I prefer it all to be out in the open“)
‘You Woke Up My Neighborhood’, with half of REM adding a swing to proceedings and Billy adopting his rubbish cod-American accent, used to make me smile in recollection of the wild girlfriend who had been part of my life so briefly and had never actually existed.
Even now, all those years later, as I’m in the midst of ‘Mother of the Bride’, a song which used to make me warm with adolescent self-pity, I’m already fearful knowing that ‘Tank Park Salute’ is up next, a devastating song about the death of Bragg’s father, which I used to force myself to sit through to attempt to confront my worst fears. It didn’t work, but the song is etched on my heart. It’s playing now, still burning. Listen. It’s beautiful.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O51StLHCTrU%5D
‘God’s Footballer’ (“turns on a sixpence and brings the great crowd to their feet in praise of him”) a deft tribute to Peter Knowles. ’North Sea Bubble’ and ‘Body of Water’ as convincingly rocking as Bragg would ever get.
i reached for it just now because of some half formed desire to ‘listen to some songs’. I couldn’t say why this record sprang to mind, but it fits the bill perfectly. [Update: I know where it came from. For some reason I was whistling ’The Space Race Is Over’ as I tripped up and down the corridor at work this afternoon. I couldn’t say why.]
I think Bragg is vastly under-rated, or at least not sufficiently credited, as a pure songwriter. His politics, and their place in his work, are often seen somehow as mutually exclusive to him writing really great songs. But he does, or at least did. ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ absolutely bursts with them. It’s also one of his warmest collections, wherein the personal takes precedence over the political or, in the best examples, ‘Moving the Goalposts’, ‘Rumours of War’ the two are made inextricable.
It’s a great record, probably the best overlap between his blunt early passion and his growing confidence and range as a composer. And it’s just chock full of tremendous, moving, proper songs. Songs which feel like they could and should be passed down through generations. They are vibrant, living, energetic or quiet, intimate, moving, meaningful. If that sounds like something simple, then i’m sure it’s not, but the pleasures to be had here are simple in their own way, unpretentious, sentimental, rousing, honest and, 20-odd years down the line, still wonderful and memorable. How else would I know all of them when they were so bloody difficult to listen to in the first place?
[Update: I think I probably made a tape of this and so did listen to it through all the time, but my point still stands]