Billy Bragg sings hus country ’tis of thee

Lee Overtree

Billy Bragg wants to make the world better, but he can’t do it alone. He says so himself in “Some Days I See the Point,” smack in the middle of his new album, England, Half English. And thus Bragg credits his backing band, The Blokes, on the album cover, reflecting a move toward collaborative songwriting with his bandmates, and with it, more sophisticated arrangements.

Bragg’s style is timeless. He defines the singer-songwriter as political activist, using music as a catalyst for change in the style of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. (And in tribute to the latter, he – along with Wilco – has recorded two albums of music to revive a library of unused Guthrie lyrics.) But Bragg has also created a unique role in pop music for himself on the weight of his very direct lyrics and his very English self-identity.

The proper follow-up to 1996’s introspective William Bloke, England returns to political consciousness, spending much of its time on Bragg’s notion of his national identity. The themes are both heartfelt and scathing, ranging from “Oh what a beautiful country you are” to “Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset.”

In the past, such blunt politics have been tastefully matched with sparse arrangements. But England favors a bigger sound, which inadvertently undermines Billy Bragg the singer. Somehow a chorus of “Can you hear us? Are you listening? No power without accountability!” becomes a little less powerful and defiant with gospel-style backing vocals tacked on.

But on the songs where Bragg focuses on melody rather than attitude or message, the heightened production aesthetic succeeds. The recording of “Distant Shore” and “Some Days I See the Point” makes Bragg’s rough voice sound as lush as the arrangements surrounding it.

Meanwhile, the frequent use of bizarre instrumentation (including resozouki, bouzouki, saz and many more instruments I couldn’t give you the origins of) works best when accentuating the groove, as on “Jane Allen,” instead of attracting attention to itself, as on “NPWA” and the title track. This isn’t to say that the use of unconventional instruments is a bad choice. In fact, the lyrical content of the record almost demands it. It seems that Bragg’s point is that the tried and true sounds we associate with one’s national identity don’t give the full picture of a culture. Tradition only works half the time.

The bad news for Bragg and his fans is that the labored departures on England also only work half of the time.

The span of Billy Bragg’s career establishes him a songwriter of practically unimpeachable methods. As with many great musicians, it’s easy to dislike certain directions the artist follows in his/her career, but with Bragg, the shift is merely one of style and not substance. Indeed, on England, Half English, the substance is still substantial. nyou