A lot has happened politically in the last two years, particularly from a British perspective. First, there was 23rd June 2016 when 51.9% of the participating electorate voted to leave the EU. Then, to top off what can only be described as a tumultuous year, an egomaniacal reality TV star was elected president of the USA.
In times of such uncertainty and instability, there’s one man who can always be depended on to lend his own distinct view to the situation. Folk troubadour and all-round working class hero Billy Bragg has never been one to shy away from the hot topics. Ever since his participation in the Rock Against Racism march as a young teenager in the late ‘70s due to his love of iconic punk band, The Clash, Billy Bragg has been a mainstay of leftist thought in British music, just as likely to appear on Question Time as Top of the Pops.
It wasn’t so much as inevitable that Bragg would at some point tackle such issues head on, in the medium he knows best, the protest song, and his latest mini-album ‘Bridges Not Walls’ does just that. “The sleep of reason produces monsters” he laments on the record’s opening track, painting a vivid picture of alt-right attitudes currently filling rhetoric in the US.
While this collection of songs may not deviate too far from Bragg’s well-worn folk-punk stylings it’s his bold approach to such subject matter that strikes the most fervent chord as he wades into the debate, electric guitar in hand. In spite of its short run-time no stone is left unturned, whether it’s addressing climate change with a country lilt (‘King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood’) or the confusion amidst Trumpian America (‘Why We Build the Wall’). The record isn’t without moments, however, where the unsubtlety of his approach can at times risk coming across as banal, particularly on the aforementioned tracks, when ham-fisted lyrics are married with such simple chord structures. Lacking that observant wit that has made for some of Bragg’s best politically-edged output.
The real merits in this latest work lie in Bragg’s originality and ability to break down such high-concept politics into Lehman’s terms with an endearing sincerity. This is the case in what stands out as the record’s finest track, ‘Full English Brexit’, a piano-led ballad that puts Bragg in the shoes of a ‘Little Englander’ as he searches for the reasons behind the Brexiteer psyche; “Change is strange and nobody’s listening to me!”
Another more interesting slant is seen on ‘Saffiyah Smiles’ as Bragg celebrates the heroic stance taken by Saffiyah Khan whose actions went viral earlier this year when she smiled in the face of right wing thugs at an anti-immigrant demonstration; “with a smile she disarms the man”. Simple in concept yet effective in execution. It’s refreshing to see a musician in his late 50s so in tune with the modern political state of the nation offering up his take on current events rather than relying on nostalgia to flog mediocre records preaching the sentiment of a bygone era.
You’re never going to fully escape all the Bragg hallmarks, nor would you want to, they’re part of what makes him such a unique British institution. The execution may at times be slightly slapdash and a little heavy-handed but the message is still there.
Words: Rory Marcham
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