Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This at Home
Go! Discs, 1991
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
I had a bit of a life-changing experience listening to Bragg’s third album—Talking to the Taxman About Poetry—for months on end a couple years ago. It’s still firmly rooted in my top ten favorite albums of all time, and naturally, I feel like it’s where Bragg peaked. It was the perfect blend of what he does best. The songwriting was a dense and deft blend of the political and emotional, often mixing the two, and the arrangements were more ornate than his sparse early material yet made the songs sound full without being too elaborate. Worker’s Playtime dabbled in adult urban contemporary with the breeziness of its love songs but goddamn if they weren’t expertly crafted (and goddamn if “Little Time Bomb” isn’t one of the best heartbreak songs I’ve ever heard).
On Don’t Try This at Home, Billy Bragg builds upon the easy-going politi-pop of Worker’s Playtime, which is to say that the songs are thoughtful, pleasant, and insightful yet lack the verve and vibrancy of his earlier material. Which is fine, because part of Bragg’s appeal is the everyman persona he projects and to expect him to not mature and to keep churning out impassioned protest songs with just his electric guitar would be a shame. The trouble with Don’t Try This at Home is that, over two discs and an hour of playtime, it is overstuffed and prone to stagnating on the slower, more pensive tracks. The production on the album is beautiful and only occasionally suffers from the cheesy hallmarks of the early 90s.
When the album is good though, it’s often great. The Johnny Marr produced “Cindy of a Thousand Lives” is a lovely tribute to photographer Cindy Sherman, “The Few” is a charming, intelligent skewering of English politics straight outta Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, and the Marr penned and contributed to “Sexuality” is fun and catchy distraction. It’s just that there are way, way too many maudlin tracks that could all be easily excised. Songs like “Dolphins,” “Moving the Goalposts,” “God’s Footballer,” “Rumours of War,” and “Tank Park Salute” sap all of the energy from the upbeat tracks and ultimately make Don’t Try This at Home a tough album to make it all the way through. I’ve got nothing against Bragg wanting to roll out his softer side, and slower numbers provide his earlier records a really wonderful balance, it’s just that they are 100% in the way of the other tracks on the album (from the get go, as “Accident Waiting to Happen” is a fantastic burst of energy sapped by the slow, yet quite lovely “Moving the Goalposts”).
The album feels like a hodgepodge; like an album with all the b-sides mixed in. It’s always sad coming across albums that suffer when there’s clearly a great record buried in the bloated track list. What were they thinking leaving “Wish You Were Her” on the album? Especially putting it right before the terrific closer “Body of Water.” Who knows. More like who cares, really. Even when I critique Billy Bragg it’s not real criticism when bands like Nickelback exist.
"Cindy of a Thousand Lives")