Saturday, October 30, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1515: Billy Bragg

Rolling this album was a confluence of coincidence. My friend Andrew had just been texting me about how much he was enjoying early Billy Bragg AND Bragg released his first album in eight years just this week. I haven’t heard that new one yet (although I’m optimistic).

Disc 1515 is….  Talking with the Taxman About Poetry

Artist: Billy Bragg

Year of Release: 1986

What’s up with the Cover? My album is a remastered version where they’ve altered the cover, but I’ve gone with the original because I spent last night having steak and beers. As a result I’m feeling a little traditionalist this morning.

The cartoon of a city eats money, or maybe city makes money and the cartoon creature living under it eats some of it? If my degree was in Economics instead of English I might be able to figure it out. Whatever is going on, the creature seems decidedly unfriendly and looks to be in need of a timeout.

This cover has other fun details, including a second smaller cartoon in one corner, a printed price (4.49 British pounds, which was a lot less than I paid), and the admission that the record was “difficult”.

How I Came To Know It: I did not know this record when it came out, but instead discovered it several years ago while digging through Bragg’s back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up: I have nine Billy Bragg albums. Of those, there are about four that are all equally good, but if I have to pick (and I do) I’ll put “Talking with the Taxman” at #1.

Ratings: 4 stars

On his third studio album Billy Bragg completes his transition from street busker to recording artist, with brilliant results.

Bragg’s first two records heavily evoke a street-performer, relying on his bawling vocals and big guitar sound. “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry” (hereafter referred to as ‘Taxman’) incorporates all the visceral power of those early records, to which he adds well placed additional instrumentation into the arrangements. The result is a much more well-rounded sound, that doesn’t take anything away from the passion that makes Billy Bragg such a great experience.

Like all Bragg records, the songs are a mix of the personal and the political, with Bragg approaching both with bravery and truth.

The record begins with “Greetings to the New Brunette”. It is a love song, but it is a complicated love. The narrator’s enthusiasm for a woman named Shirley is clear, but through a series of vignettes you get the impression that she’s just not that into him. The song has potential for heartache, but Bragg sticks with a playful approach, repeating the song’s title at the end as his girl moves on to a true love, and our hero realizes she wasn’t ever “his girl” anyway.

The Marriage” is another standout, as a man expresses his abiding love for his partner, while explaining why getting married isn’t something he’s into, claiming “marriage is just when we admit/our parents were right”. However, in the end he relents to the ceremony because hey – that’s love.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bragg’s social justice warrior is on full display, with two of his finest songs.

Ideology” is a protest song against the sitting government that hearkens back to his earlier sound. His voice is big and bold here, and his guitar hits with a power and energy that makes it feel like a full orchestra. “There is a Power in the Union” is a union organizing song, based originally off an old Civil War song for Union soldiers (“Battle Cry of Freedom”) repurposed by Bragg for the labour movement. Apparently “Battle Cry of Freedom” was so popular a tune in the Civil War that the Confederates rewrote the lyrics to suit them and sang it as well. Proof that a good tune has a staying power all its own.

My copy of this record is a re-release with an extra disc of bonus tracks. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate Bragg keeping the original record as-is and putting bonus content on a separate disc. Thank you, Billy!

As for those tracks, there are a lot of demos and alternate versions, which didn’t do much for me. Outside of the ‘no cowbell’ version of BOC’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” I’m not much for demos. However, there are a couple of beautiful covers (Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears”). He also does a cover of Gram Parsons’ “Sin City” that I did not like. I recommend you to Emmylou Harris’ version if you want to enjoy that song properly. There is also a killer extra track called “A Nurse’s Life is Full of Woe” which is easily good enough to be on the original record.

“Taxman” is not a perfect record, but it has some of Bragg’s most enduring classics, and even the lesser tunes are strong. Bringing additional instrumentation and a slightly softer production lets you appreciate his songwriting even more, without taking away from the raw brash sound that gives him his passion.

Best tracks: Greetings to the New Brunette, the Marriage, Ideology, There is Power in a Union, Help Save the Youth of America, The Warmest Room

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