A good beard is the sign of a good songwriter. Discuss.
This week sees the release of Billy Bragg’s first album in 5 years – Tooth and Nail – and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the Bard Of Barking has thrown caution (and clippers) to the wind and let his facial hair grow freely. Despite being tarred somewhat with the Political Songwriter brush (evident in songs as recent as “Tear Down The Union Jack” and “The Scousers Never Buy The Sun”), Bragg has never been one to shy away from honesty or affection in his writing. And yet there is a notable shift in tone on this new album, and one that reveals an altogether more sensitive side to the man. The acerbic sense of humour remains, but in place of the usual trademark socio-political musical bent stands a noticeably more loving and heartfelt Billy Bragg. And he recognises the contribution that his hirsuteness has made. In a recent interview with The Independent he describes his new beard as “transformational”.
And there may be method in this madness. A change in image often signifies a change in musical direction – think, most obviously, Bowie, Madonna, Prince – but even something as simple as a pair of good old-fashioned whiskers can encourage the more thoughtful kind of man (let’s exclude the ladies here, on grounds of taste and decency). Is it really just happenstance that modern celebrated songwriters such as Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, and Sam Beam all sing about love so beautifully AND have beards? Probably, but that’s not the point. Springsteen wrote Born To Run in all his hairy glory! Dylan left his razor at home when writing New Morning! Facial fur is proof positive that when you’re looking for inspiration, having something to scratch can accelerate the creative process and let you tap directly into that inner romantic you knew was always there. But a warning: go too far like E from Eels and you risk reaching the dark side, never to return.
Anyway, there are of course many baby-faced songwriters out there equally as adept at tugging at the heartstrings, but do they have the necessary gravitas to nullify any risk of sentimentality? Oh imagine how we would have wept at a bearded Barry Manilow singing “Mandy”! But we all know grown men don’t cry, and also that nothing is manlier than a full-blown beard. Therefore, add facial hair to songs of the heart and what you have is a heady mix of emotion and sincerity. Like a dad silently hugging his son after a last minute goal for Scotland in the world cup qualifiers, there is something both unexpectedly touching and serious in the embrace. And – just like world cup qualification – these are precious moments that we should treasure whenever they arise.
And so back to Billy Bragg. Whether or not the beard adds anything is mere conjecture, but there is no doubt that this is a very strong album, and our Record Of Note on The Roddy Hart Show this week. On “Swallow My Pride” he sings tenderly “Oh how can a man be strong/If he can’t even lift a telephone and say he’s wrong?”, and it becomes blatantly obvious that the 55-year old is in a sweet new phase of his already brilliant career. Maybe it’s his work with Wilco on the series of Woody Guthrie-inspired “Mermaid Avenue” records that has unlocked his heart in a way he never knew possible. Maybe it’s his age. Or maybe it’s the fact that he looked in the mirror one day and decided not to shave. I doubt we’ll ever know.