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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Billy Bragg: Don't Try This At Home

BILLY BRAGG: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME (1991)

1) Accident Waiting To Happen; 2) Moving The Goalposts; 3) Everywhere; 4) Cindy Of A Thousand Lives; 5) You Woke Up My Neighbourhood; 6) Trust; 7) God's Footballer; 8) The Few; 9) Sexuality; 10) Mother Of The Bride; 11) Tank Park Salute; 12) Dolphins; 13) North Sea Bubble; 14) Rumours Of War; 15) Wish You Were Her; 16) Body Of Water.

How nice and thoughtful of the man it is — to follow up his almost inarguably worst album with what should almost inarguably be deemed his finest hour. Yes, literally so, since Don't Try This At Home, unlike Billy's earlier albums, stretches across almost sixty minutes, and contains the finest bunch of songs he had written, arranged, and performed up to that moment. Ironically, this is his most «mainstream» and accessible record up to date — nary a sign of electro-busking any­where, and the list of guest players here (which includes Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M., Johnny Marr, Mary Ramsey of John & Mary and later 10,000 Merchants, and Kirsty MacColl) reads like a solid pledge of allegiance to the folk-rock community, all union dues paid strictly on time. But the songs, man! The songs are good.

Maybe the full band arrangements have reduced the individuality quotient: with his fairly regular Cockney voice, Billy was never able to score too many points for uniqueness of timbre or phra­sing, and the novelty factor of «the man and his amplification» partially compensated for that. But on the other hand, as I already said, this left most of the songs in a sort of unfulfilled state, so that you found yourself looking at sketches and desperately wishing for complete paintings. And eventually, yes, that talent which was kept strictly in check for so long — well, it is really hard, I think, to listen to this record and not recognize the talent. Whatever this album may lack in dis­tinct personality, it makes up for in terms of hooks, diversity, humor, lyrical acuteness, and, last but not least, an overall sense of taste (which was so sharply lacking on Internationale).

It will take one or two listens to the opening track, ʽAccident Waiting To Happenʼ, to understand whether the entire record will appeal to you — this is smart, unassuming, boyishly energetic, well-played pop-rock that remains completely grounded all the time: no attempts to plunge to the mystical depths of your subconscious à la Stipe, no romantic mannerisms à la Morrissey, and no attempts to make you feel co-guilty for all the miseries of the world à la Natalie Merchant (who is, by the way, also here somewhere in the background ­— on the new CD re-release, she sings lead vocals on one of the bonus tracks). Fun lyrics about breaking up with a girl who is "a dedi­cated swallower of fascism" (a cheeky phonosemantic variation on the Ray Davies quote), nice unspectacular vocal melody leading to a climactic catchy chorus, inspiring echoey guitar jangle for a solo — perfect recipe for healthy goodness, if not greatness.

The only surprise that follows is the completely unexpected level of diversity, as Billy (with a little help from his high profile friends) extends into various pop subgenres, including influences from the «dreamy» side of the business (ʽCindy Of A Thousand Livesʼ, dedicated to photogra­pher Cindy Sherman and sounding very much like a gentlemanly psychedelic nugget from mid-1960s England), baroque (ʽRumours Of Warʼ), Sade-style light jazz-pop (ʽWish You Were Herʼ), and epic balladry — arguably the most unpredictable inclusion is a cover of Fred Neil's ʽDol­phinsʼ; on its own, it pales when compared to interpretations by people like Tim Buckley (whose vocal wizardry Bragg could never hope to reproduce or surpass), but in the general context of the album, it serves as a welcome drop of romantic grandioseness (but not like Morrissey, no!) in the middle of the record's overall humble inclinations.

Like I said, the hooks are not great, but they're good, and when they come packaged together with  intelligent lyrics and good humor, how could we complain? ʽNorth Sea Bubbleʼ is the catchiest and merriest tune about the complexity of the revolutionary process ever recorded — essentially, a «folk-twist» ditty with a beautifully spinning guitar line and somewhat sarcastic comments on both the people in Leningrad and the man's "American friends" who "don't know what to do / But they'll wait a long time for a Beverley Hills coup". That's political, but it isn't that much in your face, and emotionally, it is not too different from the fast country-pop of ʽYou Woke Up My Neighbourhoodʼ, to which Michael Stipe adds his background vocals and Mary Ramsey her danceable, but sentimental fiddle part — both songs just make you want to dance, and you can throw in your reactions to the lyrics at any later date.

The main single culled from the proceedings was ʽSexualityʼ, which actually managed to reach a respectable position on the UK charts and should probably be included in liberal textbooks for lines like "just because you're gay I won't turn you away" and especially singalong chorus lines like "sexuality, your laws do not apply to me... sexuality, we can be what we want to be", but musically, it is hardly a standout here — in fact, its somewhat ridiculously repetitive and badly harmonized chorus reminds me of the commercial formula behind Eighties' synth-pop. Clearly, Billy wanted some kind of easily memorable, nursery-rhyme level LGBT anthem here, and he got one, but I prefer to hunt for subtler, more insightful things, which this record actually has in spades: ʽSexualityʼ is simply the most blatant number on here.

Integration of the personal and the political feels fairly smooth here, because sometimes they are directly related (ʽAccident Waiting To Happenʼ is a prime example), and at other times, well, if your English skills are below par you won't even be able to tell the difference — ʽMother Of The Brideʼ, another fast catchy country-pop ditty about an unhappy separation in love, rolls along like a potential song of social protest, whereas the bitter piano-and-strings ballad ʽEverywhereʼ, about the post-Pearl Harbor mistreatment of American Japanese, could equally well be a Romeo-and-Juliet type of song. And it all ends in just a little bit of symbolic mysticism, as the closing ʽBody Of Waterʼ waves us goodbye on a speedy, determined, hard-rocking note, with Philip Wigg con­tributing an ecstatic guitar-hero solo (but it fades out rather quickly, because God forbid a genu­ine rock'n'roll solo would be given full freedom on a record like this). "I will cross this body of water / If you promise you won't try this at home", Billy tells us, implying, perhaps, that years of electro-busking can seriously boost your Jesus potential, but years of listening to electro-busking do jack shit in that department.

Ultimately, this is an assured thumbs up, all the more assured, that is, given how easily a record like this could slip into all sorts of ideological and bad-musical extremes and how it absolutely does not. For a folk-pop album, this stuff actually rocks harder than most R.E.M., and yet mana­ges to come across as moderately intelligent. Maybe it could benefit from at least one utter genius song (something like Billy's equivalent of ʽLosing My Religionʼ), but then again, maybe it's bet­ter this way: 16 «good» tunes in a row, with not a single one that did not at least try to be catchy, or a little different, or a bit smart — next to even one masterpiece, they'd all look dusky. And the title is actually misleading: this is the kind of style that aspiring songwriters and musicians should be trying at home, all the time. You know — simple, derivative, but tasteful music that means something. If you ain't Brian Wilson, you could very well try to be Billy Bragg.

4 comments:

  1. You just made me check, but I like Accident Waiting to Happen much better than Losing my Religion. That one bores me quickly and hence is too long. And I'm a hardcore atheist.

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    1. "Losing My Religion" is a love song that has nothing to do with religion itself; the title is a Southern expression for being at your wits' end.

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    2. As a gay guy, I'm far more bored than the patronising lyric of 'Sexuality'. How right on of you, Billy!

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