At a wedding I was at this summer, I made the unfortunate mistake of bringing up Billy Bragg to my friend Tanya. Although I love talking about Bragg's music any opportunity I get, I have a tendency to get a little carried away (a tendency that increases exponentially depending on how much I've been drinking). Pretty soon I was singing lines from his songs and demanding (literally, I think) that she acknowledge the genius in his lyrics. It was all pretty embarrassing.
Regardless, the point I am always very insistent in trying to get across is that regardless of whether you can really get into his singing voice or the music, it's just impossible not to fall in love with his lyrics. His lines are heartfelt, immediate, and way less oblique than other great songwriters like Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan. So, in the interest of advancing this theory, here are some of my favorite Billy Bragg lyrics (with commentary). Most of these songs can be found on the "Back to Basics," but, as that record is out of print, you couldn't go wrong with "Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy" or "Talking With the Taxman about Poetry."
Billy Bragg's songs can be put into a number of categories, here are a few:
Unrequited Love: This is a category in which Billy Bragg especially excels. Not only are his songs sharp and honest, his voice (for which the word "doleful" may have been invented) work brilliantly with the lyrics. Consider "The Saturday Boy: (mp3)"
We dreamed of her and compared our dreams
But that was all that I ever tasted
She lied to me with her body you see
I lied to myself 'bout the chances I'd wasted
Is there a sentiment that better expresses unrequited love than lying to yourself about the chances you've wasted? Can an unrequited love even exist if you honestly think the boy or girl would never love you in a million years? I'm amazed now how often I thought when I was younger than I "blew my one chance" with a girl when, really, I was probably kidding myself to begin with.
Social Status: Another great gift of Bragg's is his ability to see the world through the eyes of the middle class, in particular those of us that are working hard but still struggling to get by. He's not alone in this regard (apparently some "Springsteen" fellow does this too), but he has a great gift for getting the universal idea in his song across. From "To Have and Have Not:"
Just because you're better than me
Doesn't mean I'm lazy
Just because you're going forwards
Doesn't mean I'm going backwards
In New York in particular, that last line is something that a lot of us have to repeat to ourselves again and again in order to keep our sanity. That verse is also one that I'd think about in college sometimes when confronted with older friends/ex-girlfriends that were already doing a lot more with their life than I was.
The Single Life: Yeesh, does he deal with any happy subject matter? Still, despite some lonely, depressing topics, there's nothing especially melancholy about Billy Bragg and his lyrics. Take this one from "From a Vauxhall Velox (mp3):"
Some people say love is blind
But I think that's just a bit short-sighted
Some people just want it now
It doesn't matter where or how
Satisfaction takes a second place
So long as they can get excited
If he's single then, by god, it's because he's tough enough to wait for something better to come along. Uh, yeah, that's why I'm single, too.
Love Songs: I guess I should pick some more political lyrics, considering that's what he's especially known for, but it seems like whenever I play him I always come back to the love songs. One of the absolute best is "Greetings to the New Brunette," a song that traces the beginning, middle, and end of a long, complicated relationship. Much of the pull of this song lies in the way that Bragg gets progressively sadder and the lyrics get a little more depressing the further the song goes on:
it's quite exciting to be sleeping here in this new room
you're my reason to get out of bed before noon
your sexual politics have left me all of a muddle
we are joined in the ideological cuddle
you really know how to make a young man angry
can we get through the night without mentioning family
give my greetings to the new brunette.
So, that's a sampling of the kind of stuff I go on about at 2 A.M. My analysis, sadly, really doesn't work as well in print, but give me a few drinks and I'll be glad to give you the full, interactive 3-hour presentation.