Punk artist, political activist Billy Bragg keeps ‘Justice’ front and center
‘I think I’m as idealistic as ever,’ says punk-folk artist Billy Bragg.
Billy Bragg’s new album begs a nagging question:
Has punk-folk’s most esteemed firebrand mellowed?
“Mr. Love and Justice” rates as the least angry, most sober – and, dare we say – softest album of the star’s long career.
“I’m 50 now,” Bragg readily admits. “You have to change. Otherwise, it would be like me always walking around in skateboard clothes. It doesn’t go very well with the gray sideburns.”
Then again, Bragg has hardly let go of the essential political commentary that helped define – if not pigeonhole – him on such classic ’80s albums as “Talking With the Taxman about Poetry” and “Workers Playtime.” Bragg still writes songs about things like injustices at Guantanamo Bay, capitalism’s corrupting effect on nature, exploitative leaders and evil cigarette companies. He just sings them in a prettier voice, creating what may strike some as an oxymoron: tender protest songs.
Consider them the cries of a dissident in winter.
An equal portion of “Love and Justice” addresses personal topics, specifically the knotty issue of relationships with a long shelf life.
“In the old days, I was dealing with the ridiculous nature of romance,” Bragg explains. “It was the first exclamatory excitement of love in [songs such as] ‘Greetings for the New Brunette.’ Now I’m looking for the longer term and dealing with those issues.”
Bragg understands them well, having been involved with the same woman for 16 years (the couple has a 14-year-old son). It’s not just his home life that has dictated Bragg’s concerns. He thinks the more introverted, and soulful, tone of the new CD may also have to do with the fact that his last project – a book titled “The Progressive Patriot” – was entirely polemical.
That tome, which ate up much of his time the past few years, mused on what it means to be a British citizen in the current age: i.e., in the wake of the London tube bombings of July 2005. Bragg was inspired to explore the topic by the troubling fact that all the bombs were planted by men of British birth. Bragg thinks his well-received work got much of the politics out of his system, inviting the rush of warmer songs for the new CD.
In fact, Bragg has always presented a finely calibrated mix of intimate and worldly songs. It irks him that people tend to focus only on the latter.
Then again, that’s what made him stand out from so many other singers when he first came up during the doldrums of Margaret Thatcher’s England. The conservative leader became Bragg’s perfect foil and foe. He hasn’t had as ready a target since.
Even at his most fiery or confrontational, Bragg rarely stumbles into broad or obvious political songs – though he himself admits that some lines he has written now strike him as a tad clunky.
“They snap up and hit you in the forehead like a rake,” he says.
Yet Bragg’s best work has formed a model for how to turn potential tracts into art. One secret is his humor: Bragg has always had a great sense of it. Another is his ability to plant a clear and individual character in the heart of the subject at hand.
In a song like his classic “Valentine’s Day Is Over,” Bragg makes it clear, by his description, that “the economy is having a big effect on the protagonists’ relationship.”
On the new album, the opening song, “I Keep Faith,” blurs the line between the personal and the universal. Its lyrics could be about commitment within a couple, or fidelity to a movement.
“My favorite songs are the ones that tick off all those boxes,” he says.
Bragg’s last album, “England, Half English,” came out six years ago and drew criticism for its lapses into the didactic. Perhaps that was in reaction to Bragg’s two previous works, “Mermaid Avenue” Vol. 1 and 2, which found him, and the great alt-country band Wilco, putting their own music to more personal lyrics left over by the late Woody Guthrie.
The words they chose, according to Bragg, didn’t present “the Dust Bowl Woody, but the one who wanted to make love to Ingrid Bergman on a volcano.”
Bragg’s new political songs arrive at an odd time in the culture, an especially apathetic one. Millions of Brits and Yanks oppose the war in Iraq, yet that has inspired no effective anti-war movement. Bragg isn’t thrilled about the situation, but neither has he given up on the current generation of potential protesters.
“I do see young people making political choices,” he insists.
In a parallel way, while Bragg acknowledges that his career long ago made him a mainstream figure – at least in his native U.K. – he still doesn’t feel he has been co-opted. And despite any mellowing in his sound, he’s far from ready to pack it in – as either a rhetorical force or an entertainer.
“I don’t want to sit at home with a pipe, a pair of slippers and a cocker spaniel,” he says. “I still think I’m as idealistic as ever. When I play, I feel like I’m 25.”