Review Summary: Still the definitive folk album of the '80s2 of 2 thought this review was well written
Billy Bragg's relative anonymity coupled with his fervent fanbase has lead him to be rightfully crowned something of a cult hero- whilst nothing short of a personality, his candidness lends itself to a rather underground phenomenon that would otherwise be tainted were it in the limelight. With his Birmingham drawl exposing tales of dead romance and political rhetoric, Bragg's success lies in the humiliated and deprecated way in which he handles his subject- just as soon he preaches Marxism, he'll match it with a sense of loathing and self-doubt.
The high watermark of his early career, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy
is, simply put, what happens when a Thatcher hating Marxist discovers he loves Bob Dylan in the same light he loves the Sex Pistols. At a frightfully concise space of just 7 songs in 18 minutes (the album still qualifies as an LP- the intention was the second side to be used to bootleg Bragg's live shows when initially released on cassette), Bragg delivers burst after burst of folk-punk ranting in all its Brummy glory. The likes of "To Have & to Have Not" and "The Man in the Iron Mask" run along in 2-minute outbursts of hooky choruses set to only Bragg's iconic voice and his down-to-Earth guitar playing. Lyrically, he pulls off his slurring calls with his honesty to boot- to his credit, he's the only man who can pull off the simplicity in the line "I love you" with sincerity ("The Milkman of Human Kindness"). Of course, none of it is a match for the man's crowning achievement, "A New England". While its title implies political-paranoia towards Thatcher, the tale of a man simply trying to find a girl to match that of his past crushes- the way lines like "I put you on a pedestal/they put you on the pill" roll off the mans tongue are done so brilliantly. Hardly a cynical man, Bragg always knows how to best humiliate a situation.
Unfortunately, folk-punk is nowadays defined by the likes of crusty's ala The Levellers, yet Bragg represents a different formula completely. An update on the folk formula of the '60s for the new generation, Bragg's debut is still as relevant to Cameron-England 2014 as it was 30 years ago, a true testament to art. Romance and politics, the human condition has never been better informed- without a doubt, Bragg sings it best.