Billy Bragg – Talking With the Taxman About Poetry

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I like this album for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the collaboration (fortunately, not the last) between Billy Bragg and Johnny Marr of the Smiths on the lead track. The idea that two of my favorite musicians were working together was thrilling. I hoped they would do an entire album together, which never happened, but man, that would’ve been great. They both seem like such nice people (I did quickly meet Bragg once, and he was polite and lovely).

What I Think of This Album

Subtitled “The Difficult Third Album,” this is another strong entry for Bragg. Sure, it’s a notch below his earlier offerings, but what isn’t? Bragg moves further away from his tube station busker mode, adopting a gentler voice and adding guest harmonies (from Kirsty MacColl), guest and overdubbed guitar (Marr, as well as producer John Porter), subtle organ and piano, a violin, flourishes of brass, and even some percussion. It’s the usual mix of love songs and protest tunes, heavier on the former and with a surprising number of covers.

Bragg excels with the jangly “Greeting to the New Brunette,” courtesy of Marr and a nice slide guitar solo from Porter, and some characteristically clever lyrics. There is growth here, too, as Bragg doesn’t settle for songs of unrequited love but explores more mature relationship themes, including the growing pains of a couple. Hence, there is frustration and resignation coloring “The Marriage” (“Marriage is when we admit / Our parents were probably right”); a disgraced and confused lover – supported by a saloon piano – pines on the jaunty “Honey, I’m a Big Boy Now;” and loneliness suffuses the countryish “Wishing the Days Away.” Even better are the lilting “The Passion,” and the unassuming “The Warmest Room.” A standout is the Motown-referencing “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” a short story about a hard-luck young woman, suffering from domestic violence, who takes solace in her Four Tops cassette; the bridge on this song is fantastic, as is the brass. You will feel how you feel about the political songs.  Bragg borrows the tune from Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” for “Ideology,” which bristles with indignation; adopts a U.S. Civil War song (“Battle Cry of Freedom”) for the rousing “There Is Power In A Union;” and references the Beach Boys in “Help Save the Youth of America,” noting that the next world war won’t spare the United States (“And the cities of Europe have burned before / And they may yet burn again / But if they do I hope you understand / That Washington will burn with them / Omaha will burn with them / Los Alamos will burn with them”). Also included is a cover of “Train Train” (also known as “Take It Easy”) by pub rockers The Count Bishops, for reasons I can’t fathom.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is sad and not at all fun, but it is a remarkable piece of songwriting.

Release Date

September, 1986

The Cover Art

Literally cartoonish, but in a good way. I like the main image and the smaller smiling taxman (?), as well as the blue band across the top. It’s a good shade of blue. I’ve also always liked the Go! Discs logo.

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