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Review: Billy Bragg publishes first lyrics collection (Includes interview and first-hand account)

Just as Morrissey’s Autobiography was published as a Penguin books classic, Billy Bragg’s collection of selected lyrics has been published by Faber and Faber. The publisher is best known for poetry collections, such as T.S. Elliot, Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin. It is not often that practitioners of popular music are venerated in this way; it is, however, a reflection of the quality of their songwriting.

There are many arguments to be had about the best lyricists in popular music, from Leonard Cohen to Patti Smith; and from Nick Cave to Jarvis Cocker. From the British canon, Billy Bragg is up there among the best. Although he is more often known for his politically charged lyrics, it is the tenderness of his songs about personal relationships that make him stand out. He also writes away from the glitz and the glamour, focusing on everyday experiences (“Live in a land where the soap won’t lather”, as he sings on The Only One, taken from the album Workers Playtime[/i] — the best “relationship break-up” album I’ve ever listened to.)

Music cannot change the world, according to Bragg, but it can inspire people. Writing about the launch of the book in The Guardian, he writes: “Singing songs won’t change the world, no matter how much we might want it to. Music can bring us together in common cause, engage and inspire us, focus our anger, and raise funds and awareness, but ultimately the only people with the ability to bring about real change are in the audience, not on stage.”

The cover of Billy Bragg s lyric collection  A Lover Sings .

The cover of Billy Bragg’s lyric collection ‘A Lover Sings’.
Billy Bragg

Bragg’s musical career has been varied, and the new collection reflects that. In this video, Bragg explains the background to the book and his inspirations:

Bragg has written hundreds of songs. The book contains 75 selected by the singer. Digital Journal picks out five excerpts from some of the best offerings.

Billy Bragg began with politically and socially conscious work on his early albums, often simply himself and a guitar. The track Between The Wars is representative of this era:

I kept the faith and I kept voting,
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand,
For theirs is a land with a wall around it,
And mine is a faith in my fellow man.

He’s made more ‘poppy’ music, as in the early 1990s, where he had a hit with the song Sexuality, as well as the soccer-inspired tenderness of Moving The Goalposts:

Like a jackdraw with a fiery brand,
Spread the news all over this land,
Robin Hood and his Merry Men,
Are never, never, never coming back again.

in the 2000s, Bragg collaborated with the U.S. band Wilco in recording the lost songs of Woody Guthrie (the Mermaid Avenue project). This led to bigger international acclaim. After this he returned to more personal works, lamenting the loss of childhood dreams, such as on The Space Race Is Over:

Now that the space race is over,
It’s been and it’s gone and I’ll never get to the moon,
Because the space race is over,
And I can’t help but feel we’ve all grown up too soon.

And the importance of family, as with M For Me:

Take the M for me and the Y for you,
Out of family and it all falls through,
We’ve got to love each other every day,
Instead of hoping it might stay that way.

The book comes with liner notes discussing each song, together with an introduction, each section written by Bragg. The design of the book is classic Faber. It looks, feels, almost smells like a poetry book. It is a fitting collection for 30 years of wordsmithing and album-making.

The best lyric? It still has to be merging the personal with the political, as on A New England and the classic stanza:

I saw two shooting stars last night,
I wished on them but they were only satellites,
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware,
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.

A Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics, by Billy Bragg, is available now.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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