Songs of Innocence and Experience

For Billy Bragg, returning after a five-year break, the personal is the political -- or is it the other way around?

By Gavin McNett
Published September 2, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

There's never been a more highly regarded amateurish commie-pinko protest singer than Billy Bragg. But then, framing it that way hardly gets to the kernel of his appeal. Make no mistake -- the man is loved. People who have no tolerance for amateurish musicians, who can't stand commie-pinkos, and who'd sooner club protest singers with pool cues than pass them by unmolested love Billy Bragg.

It isn't for his songwriting, necessarily, although his lyrics have always shown an uncanny sense of timing and detail; and it's not for his thick, bumbly, limey-dockworker locution. That's an acquired taste. Nor is he esteemed for his intermediate-level electric guitar playing, nor because he looks like DeNiro dressed for a football riot -- or anything else like that.

It's the whole formula that makes him irresistible, partly because it's so incongruous with what a pop singer is supposed to be, but mostly because, kernel-deep, it's not a formula at all.
No matter how big his audiences have gotten, or how star-studded his album credits have sometimes been -- with REM, Johnny Marr, Natalie Merchant, and many other notables backing him up at various times -- Billy Bragg has never been, or claimed to be, anything but a nice working-class English guy with a good head on his shoulders, a cheap guitar and a deep, abiding moral sense underlying his work.

What he represents is important, too. Not very many decades ago, the left in Britain rested upon the foundation of an English proletarian of the sort that could recite Dylan Thomas and quote Marx, that read workers' newspapers and sang from union songbooks, and that voted Labour come hell or recession. Billy Bragg is that, more than anything else, and there aren't many like him being produced anymore. He's probably the only singer under 50 in the English-speaking world who can do the Internationale and get away with it -- or for that matter, who can even use the word "socialism" in his lyrics without drawing snorts from the gallery.

But that's still only half the story. As much as his politics have helped to define him, his capacity to inspire his audiences hasn't limited him just to making inspirational music. Billy Bragg is the socialist Amy Grant: He's proven many times over the years that he can hold an audience just as firmly singing love songs as singing about his religion. But he's often found it hard to integrate his passions and his convictions.

"William Bloke," his first album in five years (he took time off to help raise a son), shows him finishing the work he started with his last, "Don't Try This At Home." It was there that we began to see the political Bragg and the personal Bragg consistently as a single, whole person rather than as a Strummer-and-Jones team trapped in the same skin. Bragg's best lyrics -- whether they were about minersb strikes or his failings as a lover -- have always drawn their power from his sense of compassion and personal responsibility. With "William Bloke," those qualities have displaced hard politics as the center of his ideology, and even though he's lost none of his lyrical bite, he's unshouldered a lot of political baggage.

On "Upfield," the album's first single, manifesto, and undisputed party-rock anthem, he sings of having a "socialism of the heart." On "From Red To Blue," the slow, misty leadoff track, he wonders aloud, "should I vote Red for our class, or green for our children," and pokes at a sellout friend for choosing self-interest over either of the two. (It's enough to make a Yankee jealous of the sort of choices they have to wrestle with.)

But then there's the music. When Billy Bragg is good, he can be spine-chilling. When he's not, he's still pretty good. Most of "William Bloke" is pretty good. "Everybody Loves You" is a dark piano ballad with a strong lyrical hook; "Sugardaddy" is a lax, loping R&B-tinged thing with a deeply-layered arrangement spiced with faux-Worldbeat, faux-marimba vamps. Billy's vocals are more professional on much of "William Bloke" than they've ever been -- even to the point of his coming off, at times, as charming but denatured. His signature bark has rounded into a surprisingly cool tenor, and overall, that's a good thing. It makes the pretty-good songs on the album highly listenable.

But there are also moments here where Billy Bragg is at the height of his powers: "The Space Race Is Over" and "A Pict Song" dominate the album. The angels were inside Red, atheist Billy for these two. "Space Race" is quiet guitar, violins and all of the end of the Millennium in a single voice. "Pict Song" is a skyful of smoldering clouds gathering for the end of history, and giving hope for a new, classless beginning.

It may only be distorted guitar and vocals. But Billy Bragg has made a career out of needing no more than a battered guitar and a ten-watt amp to call fire down from the skies.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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