The Vic, October 30
By Todd Pruzan
Robyn Hitchcock, who's been touring with Billy Bragg, recently described himself as an aging hippie and Bragg as an aging punk. Though neither label is really on the mark, Bragg certainly had an ax or two to grind during the Thatcher years, and grind he did. His origins as a political busker--"have guitar, will travel"--resonated on his spare early EPs, lo-fi records with high-calorie lyrics about sex and socialism, viewed through the magnifying lens of postadolescence, soaked with piss and vinegar.
But a lot's happened in his world and ours since 1991, when he released the more complex Don't Try This at Home, the last album before fatherhood and the new William Bloke. For starters, as he grinned to his audience last week, the caprice of political correctness has slapped a new multiculti label on his trademark cockney brogue: he now speaks in "estuary English." He crowed over his new son Jack and Jack's mom, Juliet.
The last time Billy Bragg had a new album out, the U.S. had a Republican country-club president and a Supreme Court nominee who was distasteful on many levels to many Americans but not to enough senators. We even had a war. And Bragg was taking notes for his act, delivered sometimes with humor and sometimes with righteous anger. But that, as he once put it in song, was bloody yesterday.
I'll never forget the first time I saw him; that October evening was clear and fresh, and Bragg had plenty on his mind. It was 1988, and things already looked grim for Michael Dukakis. Bragg stomped onto the stage with Michelle Shocked at the Riviera and, after one duet, launched into a solo retooling of Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army," alluding of course to Oliver North, before braying bits from his brand-new Workers Playtime.
Earlier in the year Bragg had released an EP called Help Save the Youth of America, whose liner notes contained an election-year admonition to his stateside audience: "Remember, when you elect a president, you are electing a president for all of us. Please be more careful this time." Preachy, yes, but then Bragg tended to megaphone his lyrical communiques to the world while clawing clumsy chords on his guitar, like a blacksmith pounding white-hot horseshoes with a hammer (and sickle). Twice more before his "paternity leave," as he jokingly labeled his five-year hiatus the other night, I caught his show. Each time he performed, he clubbed me over the head, and I was all too pleased to get the message.
Last week, of course, we were both eight years older. Maybe I've just grown tired of his shtick, but it seemed to me that at times Bragg behaved more like a comedian than an angry poet. He sang about his new son: "I'm not trying to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for a decent baby-sitter." He came out against the Bank of Montreal's co-optation of Bob Dylan's chestnut "The Times They Are A-Changin'" as a score to its commercials. He did get off a few solid punches, as when he ground his guitar on 1991's "Accident Waiting to Happen" in dubious honor of scabs at the Detroit Free Press. But his most controversial comment of the evening was not his stance against the death penalty (met largely with silence) but his contention that baseball was "as execrably boring as cricket" (met with cheers and boos alike). Cute, as always, but suddenly harmless too.
"You still have the power to vote," he reminded us as he left the stage. "Even as the major parties continue to let us down."
Democrats (and Labour) aren't the only ones letting us down. Bragg's act was so charming and comfortable it was, much like his new album, as execrably boring as cricket. In Bragg's world, issues clearly delineated as right and left--or wrong and right--make for better songs than the grayer areas of multifaceted public policy and social concerns, just as simpler issues make for better slogans.
William Bloke does make some effort to recapture the old fighting spirit. The radio-ready single "Upfield" contains what could be the album's central theme--"I've got a socialism of the heart"--but it's prettified with a flaring brass section and spastic tempo. (There's a real advantage to a solo performance: When he pried "Upfield" out of its shiny exoskeleton, I was actually surprised and delighted to find a Billy Bragg song inside.)
But mostly the record is crammed with tiresome treacle, as on "The Space Race Is Over" (adored by much of the music press, for some reason), "Sugardaddy," and the abominable "Northern Industrial Town," a self-parodic anthem if he's ever written one. Even less successfully than echoing himself, Bragg rehashes the cruelly ironic pop we've all had quite enough of by now from Morrissey, Pulp, and the Beautiful South, sneering (on "Everybody Loves You Babe") "I'm begging you to stay / Out of my way."
It does not feel good to be so tough on Billy Bragg. I've long identified closely with his goofy self-effacement and his unapologetic left-of-center stance; I even resemble him slightly. The unflinching social themes of his lyrics were themes I sought out because I couldn't hear them as loudly anywhere else. Now he's stopped delivering them, and maybe I wouldn't believe them if he did. Unfortunately, I'm not interested in what he's delivering in their stead.
Billy: Remember, when you make a record, you are making a record for all of us. Please be more careful this time.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ David V.Kamba.