Too smart to imagine himself some kind of plugged-in savior, far too gifted to be a dull granola topical troubadour and too conscientious to let it go with a check written to Greenpeace, this brilliant auteur remains a tragic figure whose most commendable impulses explain his commercial futility. When he’s left the world to sort itself out and allowed himself off the hook, Bragg is an exceptionally sharp songwriter and adenoidally accented singer of enormous rough-hewn charm.
Playing a solitary electric guitar and singing his pithy compositions in a gruff voice, Billy Bragg reintroduced the essence of folksinging — not the superficial trappings, but the died-in-red-wool Woody Guthrie activist/adventurer archetype — to the modern rock world. Although his tools were utterly simple, Bragg proved himself capable of enormous strength and depth in his writing and performing, spinning off touching, warm love songs as well as trenchant social satire and socialist political commentary.
On the seven tracks of Life’s a Riot (recorded originally as songwriting demos), Bragg waxes tender (“The Milkman of Human Kindness”), bitter (the Paul Simon-quoting “A New England,” a song brilliantly accessioned by Kirsty MacColl) and sarcastic (“The Busy Girl Buys Beauty”), keeping things blunt and one-take spartan, making it an ultimate no-frills pop record. Combining the wordplay wit and strong emotions of Elvis Costello with the grumpy melodic charm of Paul Weller, it’s a small, articulate masterpiece.
Brewing Up, a relatively ambitious full-length undertaking with a tiny bit of organ and trumpet (not to mention — gasp! — overdubbed guitars and vocals), finds Bragg retaining all of his rugged pop appeal while sharpening his pen. The songs focus on romance, offering nervous but perceptive angles on love and lust (“Love Gets Dangerous,” “The Saturday Boy,” “A Lover Sings”). He also shreds Fleet Street journalism with “It Says Here.”
Bragg then turned his attentions to another traditional subject for angry young men with guitars: politics. He’s done countless benefit concerts, played in Communist countries and, via Red Wedge, the musicians’ organization he helped found, campaigned for the Labour Party. Between the Wars, an extraordinarily powerful 7-inch EP, is Bragg at his finest, singing of England’s peacetime recessions (“Between the Wars”), chronicling a 17th century rebellion (“The World Turned Upside Down”) and reviving the 1940s union classic “Which Side Are You On.”
“Days Like These,” a subsequent three-song single, shows Bragg’s deepening commitment to socialist political activities. He belts out sincere (if occasionally awkward) constructs like “I see no shame in putting my name to socialism’s cause / Nor to seek some more relevance than spotlight and applause.”
Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (“the difficult third album”) is a great leap forward, the deft application of understated instrumental accompaniment on some of Bragg’s best-ever songs. “Greetings to the New Brunette” (widely known as “Shirley”) is an airy love song with serious underpinnings; “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” tells chillingly of a tragic couple, colored with a touch of flugelhorn, trumpet and percussion; “Ideology” consciously paraphrases Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” for a scathing look at the old-boy buddy club of British government; rinky-tink piano provides the setting for “Honey, I’m a Big Boy Now,” a sharp-eyed appraisal of marital failure; “Help Save the Youth of America” is a powerful — and not ill-considered — indictment from abroad. The only false step is a cover of the Count Bishops’ tuneless “Train Train,” which interrupts the flow of Side One.
Subtitled “live and dubious,” Help Save the Youth of America, a 1988 EP issued to coincide with a US tour, contains four live recordings (including the title track, captured in Moscow, complete with translated intro), “There Is Power in a Union” done bluegrass style with accompaniment by the Pattersons, an alternate studio version of “Days Like These” and a leaflet promoting voter registration and electoral responsibility. Life’s a Riot Etc is a handy American-only release that combines all of the first mini-album with Between the Wars for a Bragg then-and-now extravaganza, complete with lyric sheet. Back to Basics goes that effort one better by putting Life’s a Riot, Between the Wars and Brewing Up on two discs, billed as “the first 21 songs from the roots of urbane folk music.”
On the Costello-esque Workers Playtime, veteran folk-rock producer Joe Boyd stretches Bragg’s sonic palette, setting that undisguisable voice and irrepressible wit into utterly appealing frames without undermining his homespun integrity. (Frequent sidewoman pianist Cara Tivey again plays a major role.) Although Bragg’s political consciousness is such that the proletarian Chinese art cover absurdly carries the slogan, “Capitalism is killing music,” most of these excellent new creations (“She’s Got a New Spell,” “The Price I Pay,” “Life with the Lions”) are about the ups and downs of personal affairs. When he mentions Marx in “The Short Answer,” a truly beautiful love song, it’s only to locate the name Mary in the dictionary. Indicative of Bragg’s unpretentious maturity, the cynical “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” (which invokes Camelot and Castro, and quotes Mott the Hoople to boot) offers this sardonic couplet: “Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.”
No such self-effacement troubles Bragg on The Internationale, a well-meaning but misbegotten seven-song collection of left-wing anthems and Bragg’s own dubious contributions to the genre. An a cappella tribute to Phil Ochs that rewrites “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” is a sanctimonious embarrassment, and Bragg’s ambitiously orchestrated rendition of “The Internationale” is neither impressive nor amusing. Likewise, the tra-la-la merriment with which Bragg sings “The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions,” his ode against imperialism, fails to achieve the desired ironic effect.
Bragg was nearly invisible in the first half of the ’90s, bowing out of the spotlight after reaching a dead end with Don’t Try This at Home. The most musically sophisticated of Bragg’s albums, it contains developments both good and bad. The fleshy but familiar-sounding pub rock (“Accident Waiting to Happen,” “Sexuality”), countrified folkery (“You Woke Up My Neighbourhood,” with half of R.E.M. guesting) and flat-out rock’n’roll (“North Sea Bubble”) are swell, but solemn acoustic chamber pop (“Moving the Goalposts,” “God’s Footballer,” “Rumours of War”) and junior-league Spector-osity (“Cindy of a Thousand Lives,” with guests Johnny Marr and Kirsty MacColl) point up the difficulty Bragg has putting on airs. He’s just not that kind of guy. At the nadir of this deeply disappointing album, Bragg croons the soul ballad “Wish You Were Her” in an unrecognizable falsetto. A live EP of “Accident Waiting to Happen,” “North Sea Bubble” and two older songs followed the album, but it was four years before Bragg would again tour the US, and he made it to ’96 before delivering a new record.
The Peel Sessions EP, recorded in 1983 for radio broadcast, contains renditions of “A New England,” “Love Gets Dangerous,” John Cale’s “Fear” and a hilarious Britain-specific exploration of “Route 66.” The Peel Session Album incorporates all of those tracks as bonuses to a baker’s dozen collected from five subsequent visits (1984-’88) to the BBC 1 radio studios.