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Billy's Blakean Bragging Rights

Billy Bragg
From Red to Blue: A new-found, hard-won introspection softens the dualities on Billy Bragg's latest album.

Firebrand Billy Bragg mellows with age on poetic 'William Bloke' album

By Gina Arnold

THE TITLE of Billy Bragg's eighth album--William Bloke (Elektra)--is apt. The name--a play on the English artist, poet and politician William Blake--could almost refer to Billy himself. Bragg doesn't paint (as far as I know), but like Blake before him, he has intermingled patriotism, art and politics to a surprising degree, musing musically on the vagaries of--to quote Blake again--"England's green and pleasant land."

In his decade-plus-long career, Bragg has attempted to radicalize rock & roll in various ways and with varying degrees of success. He began his career as a sort of punk-rock Woody Guthrie, leaping on stages impromptu to harangue crowds of loud, fast punk-rock fans with surly versions of old union folk songs solo on electric guitar, but he soon gave that shtick up for a fuller rock sound.

Although he is a songwriter of quite astonishing virtuosity--the song "Greetings to the New Brunette," commonly called "Shirley," stands as one of the great love songs of the '80s--Bragg has been known to trip himself up on his own ambitions.

After all, few songwriters are competent to deal with what Bragg once referred to as "politics and pregnancy." Dylan did it, of course, but it's a slippery slope. The fact that Bragg has even on occasion ("New England," "Levi Stubbs' Tears") risen to the occasion is a distinct tribute to his natural talent.

Bragg's strengths as a songwriter are pretty blatant (rather than vacant). He possesses a bent for sheer melodicism, and the kind of quick, lyrical gift that make the "moon-June-swoon" school of songwriters look like teeny-tiny babies.

His drawback has long been a personality that can, at times, ride roughshod over the music. He has a weakness for a broad Cockney accent and for songs that are riddled with the personal pronoun.

You either love Bragg or you hate him, but even if you love him, he can grow tiresome, like standing next to the loudest, most stimulating talker at a party. At first you're bowled over; but when you can't get a word in edgewise, your attention starts to flag.

Bragg has just finished a five-year hiatus, however, during which the world became ever so slightly more liberal--and he became an infinitely more measured thinker. Apparently, Bragg has less to gripe about, and the result is a more consistently great record.

William Bloke is just as concerned with the plight of the common people as previous albums, but on it, black isn't quite as black as it used to be. On the opening track, "From Red to Blue," for example, Bragg sings, "Should I vote red for my class, or green for my children?" The old Billy had no such gray areas--and gray areas make for a more realistic world view.

Thus, William Bloke is the least bombastic of Bragg's records. Musically, it's full of gorgeous tunes and encompasses a good deal of jazzy interludes and lovely background instruments--piano, horns and wonderful strings. Lyrically, it's equally colorful, full of "sha-la-las." Moreover, during his hiatus, Bragg married and had kids, and the new album clearly shows the maturity that these events exerted on his psyche.

"Brickbat," for example, a song about marital bliss, functions as the moral centerpiece of the record: "I used to want to chuck bombs/at the last night of the Proms/but now you'll find me with the baby in the bathroom/with that big shell listening for the sound of the sea." (FYI, "The last night of the Proms" is an English music tradition equivalent to the Boston Pops.)

This touching number is followed by an equally poignant song called "The Space Race Is Over," which contends that "now that the space race is over/I can't help but feel we've all grown up too soon."

Sure, the tone of both these songs is a little bit nostalgic--does Billy miss being a feisty firebrand, decrying Margaret Thatcher and boosting downtrodden coal miners, or what?--but it's certainly much more accessible to the average listener.

THE ALBUM is also more comfortable--and comforting, thanks to Bragg's amazingly sure touch with melody. On "Upfield," the Jam-like, Stax-sounding single, Bragg sings that he has contracted "socialism of the heart."

"Everybody Loves You Babe" is a nasty little piano ballad about marital boredom: "They don't know how iffy you can be." The sad importance of football fandom in the sticks is the subject of "Northern Industrial Town." And on "A Pict Song," Bragg transforms a semitraditional Scottish ballad about pixies--"For we are the little folk, we/too little to love or to hate"--into a moving statement about the "Worker." It's highly reminiscent of "Blake's Jerusalem," from Bragg's last EP, Blake long having haunted his work.

If William Bloke has a flaw, it is a strange, bleak pall that envelopes its inner being. The songs are uniformly pretty but sad, and Bragg's new persona--always more candid than need be--is comparatively deflated.

On "King James Version," he sings of a man who "was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in." Could he fain be talking about himself? And if he is, where does that leave those who believed in him?

In William Blake's epic poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake wrote, "without contraries there is no progression." This truth is particularly easy to see in the repertoire of Billy Bragg, which has, in the course of over a decade, crossed every barricade between folk, punk and rock, as well as bravely, if not always wisely, blasting political and social ills. Judging by William Bloke, Bragg's ideology has mellowed with age, but the result has been progress indeed.

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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