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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Billy Bragg: Talking With The Taxman About Poetry


1) Greetings To The New Brunette; 2) Train Train; 3) The Marriage; 4) Ideology; 5) Levi Stubbs' Tears; 6) Honey, I'm A Big Boy Now; 7) There Is Power In A Union; 8) Help Save The Youth Of America; 9) Wishing The Days Away; 10) The Passion; 11) The Warmest Room; 12) The Home Front.

Finally, after years of hardcore studio busking, Billy Bragg relents upon us — if only a little bit. There is still a lot of minimalistic electro-busking here, but on many of the tunes, Billy agrees to use additional musicians, sometimes even including a rhythm session, with John Porter playing bass and several different percussionists, one of which happened to be Kenney Jones himself (ex-Small Faces and ex-Who), who also took upon himself the production duties. Ken Craddock on organ, Dave Woodhead on trumpet, and even Johnny Marr on guitar also make appearances, continuing their relations with Billy from where they left off on the previous album.

Concerning the album title, I was all set to make some clumsy joke around it when I fortunately discovered that it was actually the translation of the title of a Russian poem by Vladimir Maya­kovsky (something I would never have guessed on my own because the Russian original has the convoluted financial inspector rather than taxman — the poem was published in 1926, when the USSR had no «taxmen» to speak of) — the main idea of the poem being «defense of poet's ho­nor», stating that the profession of a poet is a legitimate occupation even in the new world, ruled with the iron fist of the proletariat dictature. Honestly, I am not quite sure how that point is to be applied to this Billy record — other than implying that he is somehow justifying himself for not working in the coal mines, back to back with The People, but rather sitting his ass off in a warm recording studio, because, well, if The People want their champion, they have no choice but to let him sit his ass off in Livingston Studios, London. I mean, he probably could take his guitar and his tape recorder and record these songs right in the coal mine, but then they'd sound... dusty. No chance of getting any hit singles that way.

In any case, the album seems better constructed than Brewing Up: lyrically and musically, there are more nuances here, and the record does not immediately come off as this unnatural, clumsily constructed «now I'm singing about people's rights» — «and now I'm singing about bitches» — «and now I'm singing about people's rights again» — «and now I'm singing about bitches again» monstrosity. Mind you, he is still mostly singing about people's rights and bitches, but the song titles, the melodies, the lyrical imagery become more diversified, and in fact, you know what? in the very first song, he actually combines the two aspects: "Shirley, your sexual politics left me all in a muddle / Shirley, we are joined in the ideological cuddle... Politics and pregnancy / Are de­bated as we empty our glasses...".

Unfortunately, even though there are more pianos, trumpets, and bass guitars on the album as be­fore, I also have to state that this comes at the expense of interesting melodies. The most obvious case is ʽIdeologiesʼ — which is simply a cover of Dylan's ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ with new, «up­dated» lyrics by Billy, and even if he is not stealing it, but honestly indicating Dylan as a co-au­thor in the credits, this is somewhat symbolic: lyrics and pure passion have completely overridden his pop writer instincts. This is not a crime — in fact, it may be a deliberate and rational decision, because the man would hate to be labeled as a «pop artist» anyway — but it still makes me sad. Intelligent political statements set to pop hooks give you so much more than just intelligent poli­tical statements (even if intelligent political statements by pop artists are by themselves much preferable to any political statements by politicians).

The most musically interesting songs here are the subtlest and most psychological ones: ʽThe Marriageʼ, a seemingly weak protest against the ties of society ("marriage is when we admit our parents were right", the chorus goes), is set to an interesting mish-mash of choppy jazz chords, blues lines, and flamboyant trumpets that has no direct analogy in the past — and ʽThe Passionʼ, symmetrically disposed on the second side of the album, also has a wonderful gliding waltz melody, not as original, but with a very deep and tender-sounding weave of two guitars sliding in and out of each other, as if symbolizing the now agreeing, now discordant relations between kids and parents that forms one of the lyrical topics of the song. There's also ʽLevi Stubbs' Tearsʼ, a mildly haunting portrait of an outcast whose only source of permanent comfort are The Four Tops (and suchlike) — a good example of the man's busking technique where he alternates between throttling/choking his guitar and letting it wail free: again, not particularly original, but very well suited for the character he is singing about.

Political stuff like ʽPower In The Unionʼ and ʽHelp Save The Youth Of Americaʼ (I do hope there was some sort of a plan to spread the song in the States — I mean, who really needed it in the UK?) is of passable interest because of the lyrics and little else. The Randy Newman-esque ʽHoney, I'm A Big Boy Nowʼ, with its shambly tack piano and nonchalant country attitude, also shows that this kind of music should better be left to musicians across the other side of the ocean; and ditto for ʽWishing The Days Awayʼ, which may be a parody on the Nashville style for all I know, but it hardly works even as a parody — more like a pack of people that decided, for no reason at all, to record a country song despite having had no experience whatsoever. Or maybe they're intentionally «deconstructing» it, I don't think it works anyway. On the other hand, ʽThe Warmest Roomʼ is an almost accomplished pop song — all it needs is a nice, memorable lead line, and this would be as close as the album comes to a potential hit (not that there was ever any thought about releasing it as a single: that honor fell to the somber ʽLevi Stubbs' Tearsʼ).

It would be almost impossible to say that the focal point of the albums are not its lyrics — for Billy, the meaning of what is sung is clearly more important than the manner in which it is sung (which is why serious comparisons with Dylan would be out of question), and it is good to know that, once again, his idea of «championing the people» is not so much to throw shit at The System as it is to try and pull the people themselves out of their somnambulant state, which is why we have all these character portraits of disenchanted lovers, disillusioned housewives, Mother and Father and Grandma, presented with just as much psychologism (sometimes more — after all, we're standing on the shoulders of giants and all that) as in any poem by Ray Davies or (early) Tom Waits. Still, now that the original novel shock at the sight of «electro-busking» has passed, Taxman comes across as a somewhat hesitant, and not very interesting transitional record: even all these extra musicians still do not feel like they have been properly integrated with Bragg's original solitary vision. A few nice songs, but nothing spectacular. 

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