By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
"Thatcher's gone," notes singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. "Reagan's gone. Some people have wondered if that's why I disappeared off as well."
Indeed, Bragg, an England-based performer as well-known for his left-wing views as for his tunes, has maintained a low profile throughout most of the Nineties. Although he's written articles for various magazines, produced radio programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation, worked on a short film about Nicaragua for the Arts & Entertainment Network and maintained his involvement in Fort Apache, a Boston studio in which he has part ownership, he allowed five years to pass between his previous album, 1991's Don't Try This at Home, and this year's Elektra release, William Bloke. But as Bragg notes, he had a good reason for this relative lack of productivity: "I'm the parent of a two-and-three-quarter-years-old boy, Jack. You can tell by the shape of my figure. I've lost my figure, and I'll never get it back."
Just because Bragg has reproduced doesn't mean he's left his activism behind him, however. On William Bloke, several of the tracks, including "From Red to Blue" and "Upfield" (the disc's lead single), echo with his trademark beliefs; during the latter, he sings about "socialism of the heart." According to him, he's passed on this condition to his son. "Jack's first three words were 'mom,' 'dad' and 'international socialism,'" he jokingly insists. An instant later he corrects himself. "No, that's four words."
The 38-year-old songwriter, born Stephen William Bragg in Barking, Essex, has been making similar proclamations since almost as young an age. He quit school at sixteen in order to play guitar and sing with a punk group called, appropriately, Riff Raff. After the combo broke up in 1981, Bragg inexplicably chose to join the British army. He managed to last only ninety days in the service; shortly thereafter, he reinvented himself as a troubador. He's been performing steadily ever since, but he's avoided becoming a slick professional. When writing songs, he tends to dole out one note per syllable because, he says, "I can't sing and play at the same time. I'm not really a very technical musician at all. I don't read music. When I play solo, I do the rhythm with the guitar and the melody with my voice. I never really grew out of that habit. I still play quite a percussive little guitar."
This style, while limited, has served Bragg well. Between 1983 and 1986 he put out three albums on Go! Discs--Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg and Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. But it wasn't until the 1988 release of Workers Playtime, a platter distinguished by the single "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards," that Bragg began to earn recognition in the States. He was invited to perform "Great Leap" on Late Night With David Letterman the following year--but only if he would delete the song's first verse, which mentions Fidel Castro and implies that the idealism of upper-class Americans is ill-informed ("It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline, but...the Third World is just around the corner").
Rather than taking this request as an indication that he should mute his politics in the future, Bragg followed up Playtime with his most didactic work yet: 1990's The Internationale, issued by Utility Records. The title track, a Bragg translation of a composition that served as the Soviet Union's national anthem until 1943, was only one of the disc's highlights: Also noteworthy are a cover version of "Nicaragua Nicaraguita," a Bragg original called "I Dreamt I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night" and a rendition of "Jerusalem," a William Blake poem that the singer sees as revolutionary despite its being equated with "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule Britannia" by many of his fellow countrymen.
By comparison, Don't Try This at Home, the first Bragg long-player to feature a full band (dubbed the Red Stars), is less pedagogical. He mentions fascism, patriotism, religion, perestroika and the evils of war at various points on the album, but he also works in "Tank Park Salute," a quiet tribute to his father, who passed away when Billy was a teenager. And he ventures into more personal waters with "Trust" and "Mother of the Bride."
This blend of character sketches and dogma continues on William Bloke, which features longtime Bragg cohorts (namely, keyboardist Cara Tivey, drummer J.F.T. Hood and horn players Dave Woodhead and Caroline Hall) as well as a handful of new collaborators. "The Space Race Is Over," inspired by Jack Bragg's fondness for the word "moon" (which, his father confesses, was actually the third the lad learned), delivers a nostalgic look at the first moon landing; "Goalhanger" (a derogatory term used by soccer fans) portrays a dreadful player in "the game of life"; "Everybody Loves You Babe" allows Bragg to exhibit his sense of humor ("I'm begging you to stay," he croons, before adding, "out of my way"); and "A Pict Song" unearths a Rudyard Kipling poem that sounds as if Bragg wrote it himself. As for "King James Version," the song finds Bragg offering his perception of family values.