Bought by Chris J for Liam
I first heard Billy Bragg at a boozy party. When New England came on, one of my friends started singing along quietly and then strangely everyone else went quiet and watched him sing out the rest of the song. Quite blown away by this tender song and moment I sought out more Billy Bragg stuff and ended up with a greatest hits compilation and this gem - Don’t Try This At Home.
I absolutely love this album, probably more so than his earlier stripped down stuff. Although it’s more pop, the lyrics still have a social conscience and the songwriting remains as strong as his earlier stuff. I listened to this album for years before realising what great collaborators feature on it - Johnny Marr, Kirsty MacColl, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. This album just makes you want to sing as loudly as you can in your best Essex accent.
I was really happy when this album came in the post. I love doing these 1p album swaps for the new music it’s introduced me to, but sometimes there’s nothing better than having the perfect excuse to revisit an album you’ve not heard in a long time. Years ago, Don’t Try This at Home was the album that got me into Billy Bragg; it’s one I’ve happily revisited since its arrival in the post from Chris and one I’ll happily rave about here.
Billy Bragg is a strong character. He has little room for subtlety in his foghorn voice and little room for subtlety in his very vocal politics - both of which can be alienating to new audiences. My wife (and I don’t think she’s alone in this) refers to listening to Billy Bragg as ‘worshipping at the Church of Bragg’, such is his tendency to preach. I feel this too at times, but it’s one of the things I love about him. Whether you come away thinking he’s wrong or thinking he’s blinkered in his views, well, I’d argue that’s a good thing. The point is that you come away thinking – there are not many musicians who so successfully get people thinking and challenging ideas the way Bragg does. Billy, if you’re reading, next time you’re asked about mixing pop and politics, there’s your answer.
I’d argue that Don’t Try This at Home is the classic mix of Billy Bragg’s strengths – writing about the political, the personal, and the humorous. You get his trademark acoustic pop with a social conscience in the form of anti-war Everywhere, the less-than-subtle pop-preach of Sexuality, and Rumours of War, but this social and political is all brilliantly balanced with the intensely personal. Moving The Goalposts is as intimate as songs can get (“Heavens above, can this sticky stuff really be love?”) and Tank Park Salute is a beautiful reflection on family, fathers, perspectives of age and death. Add humour into the mix with God’s Footballer (“He scores goals on a Saturday, and saves souls on a Sunday” and Mother of The Bride (“It’s nice to know that someone was on my side. Best wishes to the mother of the bride”) and you’ve got yourself a great album.
What Bragg balances so well on Don’t Try This at Home is this mix between the serious and frivolous, and the personal and the political. It is all of these side by side that really makes this album. This is not a heartbreak album, or a party album, nor is it a musical manifesto – it’s all of these things. In arranging the album with such an even mix, he adds a subtlety to the album that is absent in his vocals.
If you’ve got a spare penny (well, it’s currently 19p at time of writing) this is an album well worth buying. It’s a great entry to the canon of Bragg falling at a great pop midpoint between his early one-man-and-a-guitar angst and his later more produced full band sound. Thanks for the excuse to revisit it, Chris!
I’m going to break from conventions and go for a couple here. Tank Park Salute for its delicate sadness, and Sexuality for the sheer gall of being a ridiculously cheesy, preachy and clichéd Bragg moment that actually manages to be pop gold.