The Album List #4: Billy Bragg “Talking With the Taxman About Poetry”

The man from Barking is part of the barking left. Yes, terrible joke.

My politics were shaped as much by the music I heard as a teenager as the life experience I have suffered through.  I’m a left-wing Nutter, if you haven’t clued in, and quite proud of it, thankyouverymuch.

Yeah, whatever, bite me.

I grew up with conservative, religious parents who were dismayed by my leftist world view. I didn’t care. I felt freer for it. I do not believe in altruism. I get a good feeling from being a decent human being. I get a reward by not feeling like a total bitch five minutes a day.

Billy Bragg was the first artist I ever listened to that made me believe in this mind-set. My father, of course, is good at setting up Liberals as evil money-grubbing lunatics who want to steal his hard-earned money away for lazy people.  Billy introduced to me the songs of The Internationale. He was handpicked by Nora Guthrie to finish of Woody’s unfinished songs and released them, along with Wilco, as the two Mermaid Avenue albums that are worth listening to simply because they are perfect.

This reputation as a Thatcher hating, neo commie weirdo with a nasally Essex voice overshadows his finest work. Granted, with an album title like Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, you would assume (correctly) that politics play a role. But the finest songs on the album have nothing to do with overt politics. For all the complaining, his detractors neglect to mention that he does kitchen sink drama well, and that he is a keen observer of modern life.

Bragg’s first two recordings were bare folk affairs, mostly his unique voice and a guitar and a series of polemics.  He has always written little gems ( “A New England” from Life’s A Riot with Spy vs. Spy is one of my favourite songs of all time), but the moment the surprisingly cheery guitar strums of “Greetings To the New Brunette” that hide the more contemplative lyrics about sex and marriage, you are in for a treat of an album.

The best songs on the album are the character studies, like the achingly sad and lovely “Levi Stubb’s Tears”, which tells the story of a woman who survives abuse thanks to the love of music, or the bitter pill that is “The Marriage”, where he and his woman succumb to parental pressure and walk the plank. Bragg pulls no punches on the album about marriage- it figure prominently on several songs, both the desire and the fear of the institution. I know personally that the idea of marriage is less important than the want to just be with someone who you don’t want to smother in their sleep one night. Sometimes I wonder if I expect too much or not enough. Billy tells me through song that frankly, it doesn’t matter as long as you are happy with your choice in spite of your nattering friends and family who are overly concerned with the fact you are 34 and still not married with three kids to feed and WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!!

*Everything. Stop yelling at me.*

But when Billy gets political, I tend to love him despite the heavy-handedness. He would get much better at writing songs about how evil Tories were, are, and will be. But songs like “Ideology”, “There Is Power In The Union”, and “Help Save The Youth of America” were strong nourishment to a frustrated Liberal in hyper conservative Southern Alberta. Hey, we get it where ever we can find it here.

I was always grateful to Billy Bragg for putting out such wonderful, traditionalist folk music albums in an era of electronic melodies and vacuous lyrical content.  His  politics may irk you, or they may comfort you, but he is authentic down to his core. How many other musicians can you say are like that thirty years after they begin?

I will take this album, and all of Billy Bragg’s albums, to my grave. Because I’m not spending an eternity as worm food without some Bragg, man.

I challenge all of you to sit down and listen to Billy Bragg. Just listen. If you dislike his politics, fine. Ignore the traditional folk songs, and the Wobblies songs, and the Internationale songs. But listen to songs like “Greetings To the New Brunette”, and tell me the man doesn’t just get people.



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