Here are some things I know about Billy Bragg:
- His first band, Riff Raff, skidded into the early British punk scene inspired by the Clash.
- He's such a folkie that Woody Guthrie's daughter invited him to join Wilco on the Guthrie homage album Mermaid Avenue.
- His politics are to the left of mine -- way to the left -- and he often puts that to music.
- His broad Essex accent reminds me of Ian Dury. (I love being reminded of Ian Dury.)
- His 1996 album William Bloke is one of my favorite album titles of all time.
- His song "Northern Industrial Town" is haunting political commentary. (Listen to it, Nick.)
- His song "Must I Paint You a Picture?" is one of the tenderest love songs ever written.
- He cusses in songs almost as much as Ben Folds does.
So I ordered up Tooth & Nail without even listening to any of the tracks -- and man, am I pleased.
We find Billy in full lonesome Americana mode here, dubbing himself "The Sherpa of Heartbreak" (okay, a little irony there), and throwing in slide guitar, mandolins, Dobro (thank the Lord for Greg Leisz), honkytonk piano, even some Ramblin' Jack-style whistling. He was serious enough to hire the estimable producer Joe Henry to get the roots sound right, and to co-write a couple songs. Oh, and throw in a Woody Guthrie cover ("I Ain't Got No Home) while they were at it. Yes, there's a package.
Did I say "Americana"? How about full-on country?
Like a lot of classic country songs, this song is built around upending a cliché: "If you go chasing rainbows," he warns his woman, "You're bound to end up getting wet." Chasing a rainbow is an exercise in futility; she ought to know better. But what are those rainbows she's chasing?
"The wheels have come off again," he says with a rumpled shrug, "And the fault is all mine." At least he's honest enough to admit it. Honest...and maybe a little obtuse. "And there was I thinking / We were doing just fine." But he's committed to the relationship, and begging for a second chance: "Please don't let my complacent mind / Belie my loving heart." "Complacent" isn't a word you'll often hear in country music; there's the wordsmith Brit glinting through. But in such a matter, these finely graded shades of emotion are necessary. Surely complacency is a minor sin, for which he should be forgiven.
In verse 2, he shifts the ground, but only ever so slightly. "You've shot me down again / From out of the blue" (tiny jab there -- will she notice?) "Guess there was something / that I was supposed to do." This reminds me of Nick Lowe's "Sensitive Man," the guy pleading ignorance as a way of subtly shifting blame, and Billy spells it out even further: "Well there's just no way that every day / I'll reach your high bench mark." Is that "high benchmark," or the mark of a "high bench," as in a courtroom? Either way, he's undermining her standards.
It's surprising that more songs haven't been written about this particular battleground in the eternal war of the sexes. All too often we ladies do expect you guys to be mind-readers, effortlessly intuiting our needs, and some of you -- notice I didn't say "all of you," though I'm tempted to -- are simply retarded in that respect. Thanks for reminding us, Billy.
Because love isn't that easy. "I know you think if I just tried / We would never fight at all," he tells us in the bridge, sketching the perfect storybook version of love that we girls long for. (Are we wrong?) Billy's more of a realist: "But I know there will still be days / Into which some rain must fall." And after getting wet in the rain, what do you get? Rainbows, as that pay-off refrain reminds us.
Without that easygoing country lope, the plangent Dobro, Billy wouldn't sound quite as earnestly contrite -- the masculine pushback of this song would have more of a bite. But durn it all, he does feel sorry, and woeful about the way she's freezing him out. The complacent mind may have written the song, but it's the loving heart singing it -- and it's a pretty winning apology. I'd take him back -- what about you, girls?