A strong start. That's all we're really looking for in a band, right? A solid, strong start. This time on the TMS Listening Party we will be sharing some of our all-tim favorite debut albums. This list runs the gambit, but is in no means meant to be a definitive list. Let us know what we missed. Seriously. We want to know. -DW
I know this series is all about praise and positivity and love, so let me begin by saying that Billy Bragg’s latest album was really, really boring. Named Tooth and Nail, it was his first record in five years. His previous album, the lackluster Mr. Love & Justice, was his first in six years, following the lackluster England Half English which was six years removed from the lackluster William Bloke, and I’m sure you get where I’m going with this so I’ll stop. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a Billy Bragg fan. A big one in fact. And even his worst albums have had moments of greatness. For example, Tooth and Nail has a track called “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” which is one of my favorite things that Bragg’s ever done, and “Your Name on My Tongue” isn’t bad either. Still, the bulk of most of these records is pretty uninteresting. In fact, I’d say that the best work Bragg’s done since the 80s is easily the Mermaid Avenue albums, where he and Wilco took the lyrics of unreleased/unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs, wrote new music for them and performed them beautifully. As for his original albums, Bragg’s recordings became more infrequent following his commercial apex, Don’t Try This at Home. Some artists release work slowly because they’re perfectionists, slaving over every detail. Some are simply blocked or lost. But to me, from William Bloke on, it seemed like Billy Bragg just didn’t have much to say.
When Bragg started out in the early 80s his voice was strong. His first record, Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy was an outpouring of passion, heartbreak and rage. Bragg wrote about two things almost exclusively: love and politics, and he treated both subjects with venom and empathy in equal measure. Bragg’s music was angry, but it wasn’t one dimensional. His sadness gave his tirades a personal edge, and his sense of humor kept the bitterness of his work at bay just enough to keep it from feeling constantly crushing. It was a stunning album, absolutely remarkable from beginning to end. Of course, its brevity probably helped to keep out the filler. Though Life’s a Riot is commonly considered to be an album it’s actually the length of an EP: seven tracks in the span of sixteen minutes. The music is as simple as the record is brief, every track featuring only the sound of Bragg’s voice and his guitar. For my money it’s about as close to perfect as one could hope for. Bragg never made a record so special again. His second album, Brewing Up, was nearly as sparse and emotional as Life’s a Riot, but its increased length did dilute its power a bit. His third record, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, was when Bragg began playing with a band, and with his next album, Worker’s Playtime, Bragg shed his former “one man/one guitar” image for good.
It seems to me, and this will sound far more harsh than I intended, that each Bragg album is a bit less interesting than the one that preceded it. His first four records are all very good, but with each passing album the flaws grew more and more noticeable until the arrival of William Bloke. In the five years between Don’t Try This at Home and Bloke Bragg had gotten married and had a child and, as such, Bloke is an album about domesticity, about settling down and learning to breathe. Sure, it’s not all smooth sailing on the record. There’s still some sadness present, plenty in fact, but there’s almost no anger at all, something which continued to be a trend in Bragg’s work from that point on. Sure, he still cared about politics and social issues and those themes continued to crop up in his work, but he always seemed more tired than furious, more wry than combative. For an example, have a listen to “Take Down the Union Jack”, one of his finest songs, which can be found on 2002’s England Half English (though I recommend the full band version released on the Must I Paint You a Picture compilation more highly). Lyrically the song is extremely critical of England and its political leaders, but the way Bragg sings it doesn’t sound angry at all, just disappointed. His heart is still in it the fight, but his fists have withered away.
Here’s the thing: would I love it if Billy Bragg made another album that sounded like Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy? Yes, of course I would. Am I disappointed when I listen to a new Billy Bragg record only to discover that it, once again, does not sound like Spy vs. Spy? Of course. But there are lots of reasons Bragg will never make a record like that again. For one thing, records are born out of a specific moment in time. Asking Billy Bragg to make another record like his first is basically asking him to revert back to his emotional state in 1982. People often wonder why bands can’t reclaim their glory days, why The Rolling Stones can’t make another Exile on Main Street or Neil Young can’t make another On the Beach. It’s because they’re different people with different lives and different outlooks and feelings. Being mad at Billy Bragg for not staying the same is, in many ways, wishing the worst upon him. Though I hate to admit it, there is certainly a part of me which wants Billy Bragg to be angry and sad and overwhelmed all over again, because great art is almost always borne out of conflict and I personally think a little misery is just what his work needs to regain its former power. It seems more than a little absurd to criticize Bragg for arriving at a better place, a happier existence, as if he should place the needs of his listeners above his own. I feel it’s wrong to wish sadness upon anyone. And yet, I know if Billy Bragg got a divorce his music would probably get a whole lot more interesting.
In many ways, Bragg’s recording career seemed to mimic his life outside the songs. William Bloke is an album which revolves around domesticity, married life and fatherhood. It is a tender record peppered with love songs, but it also conveys a sense of regret, a hint that Bragg, as happy as he was to settle down with a family he loved so deeply, knew that by entering into a quieter life he was leaving something behind, something that used to matter a great deal to him: his drive, his vigor, his rage… call it what you will. Bragg surrendered that part of himself on William Bloke, and it seems to me that he surrendered it to his family as well. Some are afraid to settle into that domesticity, to envelop themselves in the depths of that security, for fear that they will become so comfortable that they’ll never want to leave its side. But isn’t that the whole point? Passion is a wonderful thing, but it fades in time. Comfort, if properly maintained, can live on for far longer. Those who cling desperately to their passion above all else may feel like they’re living lives of deeper meaning, but they’re also never at ease. Alienation is good for art, but acceptance is good for the heart and the spirit. So, as much as I love Spy vs. Spy and as bored as I am by Tooth and Nail, I’m not going to criticize Bragg for his happiness, for the love he feels for his family and the comfort he feels by their side, not anymore. Bragg has made it somewhere boring and beautiful, and he’s a lucky man for having arrived. I’m happy for him, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I turned his new record off for a moment and gave Richard another play. I value my sadness as much as I value Bragg’s. I don’t have the courage to leave it behind. Not yet. Maybe when I finally do, if that day ever comes, I’ll put on William Bloke and smile. Until then, I’ll play Life’s a Riot With Spy vs Spy loud, and I’ll nod along.
Max Castleman is a man who lives in Ohio and likes things a lot. You can read more of his stuffs on The Projection List!