Upon being assigned to review Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry for Treble’s Best of the ’80s extravaganza, I found myself re-listening to said masterpiece in the car with my girlfriend. While ruminating over how to commence this review, out of the corner of my eye I saw my girlfriend bobbing her head playfully and humming to “The Marriage,” a song she had never heard before by an artist she had never even heard of. I was sent instantly into a fit of laughter. She, a fervent optimist, who dreams day and night of an idyllic, white-laced wedding, was enthusiastically singing along with lyrics that read “I just don’t understand it / What makes our love a sin? / How can it make that difference if you and I are wearing that bloody, bloody ring? / Love is just a moment of giving and marriage is when we admit our parents were right.” When I informed her of the song’s lyrics, she shrugged it off and continued humming along to the rest of the album. I suppose it is just this that has vaulted Talking with the Taxman into the stratosphere reserved only for the greats – fiercely political content in the vein of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols married to unforgettable melodies that ceaselessly infiltrate the listener’s mind like any great Beatles or Beach Boys tune. So in fact, it was quite appropriate that I was snidely chuckling at the lyrics while next to me my girlfriend was bouncing along to the music – the ability to combine the words and music, without one hurting the other, is what made Bragg great.
Now, the record would be a more than deserving entry on a number of lists – Best Albums to Listen to in a Pub, Best Album to Piss Off Your Parents With, Album You Listen to That Is Most Likely to Hurt Your Chances of Getting Elected to the House of Commons – and it also certainly warrants a prominent spot on the Best Albums of the ’80s list. Bragg chose to use more ornate productions for Taxman than before, enlisting horns, the layered guitars of Johnny Marr, and the voice of Kirsty MacColl; but, of course, no percussion. The opener “Greetings to the New Brunette,” is a contextual distillation of the album, telling a story involving Bragg’s favorite topics — politics, love and pubs. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is a moving track about a girl who married too early, to a man who left, and came back to kill her. Bragg whispers the track’s sobering moral, “When the world falls apart, some things stay in place,” with chilling results.
Every once in a while, politically charged artists repress their passionate polemics and caustic wit just a little bit, and allow their emotional diffidence to come through. Bob Dylan had Nashville Skyline. Johnny Rotten had Flowers of Romance. Billy Bragg had Talking with the Taxman About Poetry.
Robyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream of Trains
Ted Leo – Tell Balgeary Balgury’s Dead
R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant