David Byrne and Billy Bragg: How Well Are My Heroes Aging?

I used to get a lot of shit when I worked at Tower Records in Boston for liking Billy Bragg. Some of my co-workers would ridicule Mr. Bragg’s snotty British snarl on songs like “Help Save the Youth of America.” I had a few allies there, but for the most part, I was content to ambush people with Billy Bragg in the from Mermaid Avenue, his incredibly awesome recording of some lost Woody Guthrie lyrics (he did the album with Wilco and if you don’t own it, you’re missing one of the most amazing albums recorded in my lifetime, I shit you not). Every time I had Mermaid Avenue on in the store, someone would buy a copy.

Shortly before I left the East Coast (which was, sadly, shortly before Tower Records was wiped out), Billy Bragg reissued a bunch of his early stuff and put out a boxed set, which prompted me to wonder if a new Billy Bragg album wasn’t also in the works. Turns out it was and turns out it’s called Mr. Love and Justice and turns out it arrived earlier this year. It’s Billy Bragg’s least abrasive work to date, which might win him new fans and lose him some old ones. He’s at his most melodic and romantic on Mr. Love and Justice, which is to say he is at his most adult-contemporary.  The album is more about the love than the justice, which is not a criticism necessarily, but it does grind on one a bit to know that Billy Bragg posseses the razor-sharp wit we need here in 2008 to cut some of our more egregiously awful elected officials down to size but uses it only sparingly. But look: if Bragg spent 12 songs saying, “Man, the world is fucked up and the blame can be squarely laid upon corrupt leadership and apathetic citizenry,” you’d shoot yourself by the end of the set. Billy Bragg’s wide-eyed idealism is itself a romantic venture, so it only makes sense that he would ache for love as much as social change. Hence, the standout tracks on Mr. Love & Justice are, in descending order, “O Freedom,” (political – duh), “The Beach is Free” (political and romantic) and album opener “I Keep Faith” (romantic). The rest of the album is pretty good too – for those who long for the old days when Bragg was the only folk singer who eschewed the strummy acoustic vibe for the jangly solo electric guitar, you can check out the deluxe edition of Mr. Love and Justice which features “solo” versions of all the tracks, just the way Billy did it when he wasn’t looking for a new England.

Yeah, Mr. Love and Justice is Billy Bragg’s most FM-Radio album ever, but that’s not really hanging the sellout tag on him; you’re still not gonna see him on the red carpet at the fucking VMA’s. Dude’s still on solid ideological ground and, after three decades of fighting the good fight, I’ll give him a little break to wax romantic. It still beats the shit out of whatever Springsteen is doing now and Billy Bragg has aged better by far than, say, Eric Clapton. The important question here is: who’s gonna pick up the mantle when Billy Bragg is (god forbid) gone? There is one other ex-military Brit singer, but he’s James Fucking Blunt and that guy is not ever (ever!) gonna sing a song that would rock the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack boat. So who’s left? Bloc Party might walk a similar path, so long as they can avoid another Weekend in the City (look for a review of Intimacy later this week).

David Byrne, one of the other great oddballs of all time, is back this year too, with another Brian Eno collaboration called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It’s like a gospel album for agnostics (how many gospel albums do you own that mention “when the angel fucks the whore”? Go on and count ’em up. I’ll wait. Oh? You don’t have any? Odd.); it’s hopeful but not entirely innocent, melodic but not cloyingly grandiose. Byrne’s voice is a multi-faceted instrument and he uses it to great effect on Everything That Happens, keeping the overwhelmingly positive outlook of most of the lyrics from coming off like the score from a Disney flick.

The album opens with “Home,” which lets you know exactly what you’re in for: lots of harmonies, lilting instruments in the background, and Byrne waxing optimistic and world-weary within the same line: “Home/ with the neighbors fighting/ Home/ always so exciting”. You get the sense that Bryne doesn’t wish he was homeward bound quite as enthusiastically as Simon and Garfunkel did, but he’s still glad to be going.

Like Billy Bragg’s Mr. Love and Justice, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today can skirt the line of adult-contemporary radio rock, but its players (Eno’s music, for which Byrne wrote and performed the lyrics) usually hold it to the correct side of that line. Everything That Happens does feature some slow tunes that, at first listen, can sound awful similar, but Misters Eno and Byrne deliver them with an impressively earnest beauty for two guys who’ve been around as long as they have and, upon repeated listening, they kinda wash over you like a Gavin Bryars record.

Neither album is apt to make my best of 2008 list, but they’ve got some great songs between the pair of them that show an ability to age gracefully. Neither album feels like a last gasp before dying by either Byrne or Bragg – in fact, both albums feel like a new breath of life for each artist. Here’s hoping Bragg knocks one out of the park on his next outing, though I won’t suffer a McCain presidency to inspire it.

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