Sunday, February 15, 2009

“Love Gets Dangerous” / Billy Bragg


Now here’s one for all the adulterers in the audience (you know who you are). This is from Billy Bragg’s Back to Basics album, a stripped-down DIY effort that’s most just him and a frantically strummed electric guitar. Once upon a time, when Billy was just a busker around London, this was his sound; the Essex accent, the slightly mumbled vocals, all make him sound like the guy next door -- and apparently the guy next door is screwing his neighbor's wife.

The lyrics come in nervous monotonic spurts: “The love of a woman / A fear of the phone / A secret message to a happy home” – he’s looking furtively over his shoulder the whole time. Melody? there's no more than about four notes in this tune, jerking spasmodically back and forth. “I’ve never been so scared / I never knew you cared”—that sums up the warring impulses that rage in this claustrophobic, anxious, adrenaline burst of a song.

He doubles his vocals for the chorus, which hammers away repeatedly at the overriding theme: "Love gets dangerous, dangerous." As the voices split into harmonies, it's like a yelp of fear, over that jittery guitar. I picture this guy jiggling his foot, unable to sit down, craving the thrill and about ready to pee in his pants for fear he'll get caught. Caught up in the danger, he can't reflect on the nature of love; he doesn't even have breathing room to tell us the story of how they met or where they meet. (Okay, later he says, "When we meet in the street / My terror is complete" -- oh yes, that really illuminates things.)

"There’s a fear that comes from being in danger," he muses in verse two, "Being in love with a total stranger." Well, you don't have to be cheating on somebody to dread pinning your fate on someone you don't really know. But when the fabric of your life is also at stake -- when you're "Putting our futures in jeopardy" -- then that stranger is even more risky. "When love is a secret, fear is the key," he adds, and I wonder -- isn't that at least half the attraction for him?

After all, in verse three he doesn't have much good to say about love -- it's a "drug that threatens to take my life" ; also, "Lust is a cancer, love is a vice." (Don't you go getting all mushy on us here, Billy.) "When she holds me I understand / Respect and fear go hand in hand" -- nothing about passion, about the way she looks or how she kisses, about dreams of happiness ever after. Nope, all those pop-song cliches are irrelevant to what Billy's about here.

Does this song make me want to have an affair? Hardly -- at least not on any rational level. It's just that...well, there's something so juicy about that vibrating guitar, the insistent offbeat rhythms, the vulnerable offkey vocals. At least these people are doing something exciting. It makes contentment and happy-ever-after seem distinctly second-rate.

Love Gets Dangerous sample

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