5. Billy Bragg, Workers Playtime
Billy met Mary in 1986. Specifically name-checked in the song “The Short Answer” (“Between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary/ There was Mary/ Between the deep blue sea and the devil/ That was me”), Mary provided the inspiration for a hefty number of the songs on Billy Bragg’s fourth official album, Workers Playtime. Or rather, it was Bragg’s tempestuous relationship with Mary that stirred his creativity. Even though the first song that brought him fame announced, “I don’t want to change the world/ I’m not looking for a new england/ I’m just looking for another girl,” Bragg’s reputation as a socialist-minded protest singer was well-established by the late nineteen-eighties (I still cherish the Rolling Stone concert review from 1988 that noted Bragg apologizing for his raspy singing, claiming he’d worn out his voice by spending the day screaming “Asshole!” at people with George Bush bumper stickers), making Workers Playtime feel like a heart-rending reinvention. Social commentary still comes into play — a pointed attack against the criminal justice system on “Rotting on Remand,” the anti-war coo of empathy on the a capella “Tender Comrade” — but the bulk of the album is about thwarted romance. The bulk of the album is about Mary.
I loved the album in the fall of 1988. I needed it about three years later, when I went through my first (and my worst) major breakup. Like those from a generation before me might have luxuriated in the sweet misery of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, I gave Workers Playtime a more or less permanent place on the turntable in my college apartment bedroom, finding highly relatable truths in its grooves. In the manner of the very best pop music, the album was a patch on loneliness, proof delivered at thirty-three rotations per minute that the feelings roiling inside weren’t entirely unique to me. At least Bragg knew what I was going through, as evidenced by the ballads “The Price I Pay” (“There’s something inside that hurts my foolish pride/ To visit the places we used to go together/ Not a day go by that I don’t sit and wonder why/ Your feelings for my didn’t last forever”) and “Little Time Bomb” (“He holds your letters but he can’t read them/ As he fights this loneliness that you call freedom”). Even a comparatively jaunty song (musically, anyway) like “Life with the Lions” held sadly familiar truths (“I know that I’m guilty/ But I don’t know what I’ve done”). These were exactly the songs I wanted to write at the time. Utterly bereft of musical talent, I’m lucky Bragg did it for me.
Even putting aside the album’s splendid success as a life support system for the newly lonely, Workers Playtime easily stands as one of Bragg’s strongest records. The added focus that comes from the thematic throughline certainly helps, but there’s also a stronger sense of musicianship that one previous albums. Though hardly a cacophony of noise, the album has an abundance of sonic textures, lovely caressing of melody and sound in every track. Surely some of that is attributable to the presence of producer Joe Boyd, who previously shepherded lush, delicate works by the likes of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Bragg usually considered himself a poet first, downplaying his skills as a songwriter and musician. By the gentle intricacy of the production, Boyd challenges Bragg’s underplaying of his own talent. Even if Bragg was ready to rely on fast-strummed exuberance like perpetual busker, the shape and sound of the album emphasized his winning songcraft.
Appropriately, then, Workers Playtime is bookended by two of the very best entries in the Bragg songbook. Album opener “She Got a New Spell” is propulsive, catchy, and scored with the sorts of clever lyrics that draw in the listener (“The laws of gravity are very, very strict/ And you’re just bending them for your own benefit”), excited to unlock its possibilities. The album closes with “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” arguably Bragg’s most enduring song and certainly the one that stands as his clearest personal anthem, if only for its direct address of the challenges of “mixing pop and politics.” Like the finest folk standards of the past, it practically cries out for a singalong, or at least it would if Bragg hadn’t realized almost from the get-go that it was also one of his most pliable songs. I’ve seen him play it live several times, never the same way twice (I’m especially partial to the revised lyric “It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll/ From East Berlin to the Letterman show”). I think of Bragg’s willingness to alter a signature song whenever I revisit Workers Playtime, I think because it hits at something I always instinctually knew was lurking there. I used the album to wallow, but it also built my strength up a little every time. Bragg obviously knew my pain. He also clearly got through his own. Life changes and develops. The heart heals and moves on. The catharsis offered by the songs was part of my process. Among everything I drew from Workers Playtime, Bragg also reminded me that it was okay to let the lyrics of my sad song change.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul