BILLY BRAGG: WORKERS PLAYTIME (1988)
1) She's Got A New Spell; 2) Must I Paint You A Picture?; 3) Tender Comrade; 4) The Price I Pay; 5) Little Time Bomb; 6) Rotting On Remand; 7) Valentine Day's Over; 8) Life With The Lions; 9) The Only One; 10) The Short Answer; 11) Waiting For The Great Leap Forward.
If you were a mathematical model, you'd be alarmed by now — we go from just one Billy Bragg on Life's A Riot to three additional musicians on Brewing Up to a whoppin' eleven backup singers and musicians on Talking With The Taxman to, finally, an amazing nineteen people offering their support (and Party mandates) to somebody who, deep in his heart, still remains the same old scruffy electro-busker and does not really need anybody in particular; yet wouldn't it be strange for a union-loving leftist to just keep on doing it all alone? I mean, what sort of example would he set for society? Solitary singer-songwriters, after all, are more like Ayn Rand fodder, when you come to think about it. If you're asking for proletarians all over the world to unite, well, at least get yourself a fuckin' rhythm section to deliver the message.
Then again, despite the album title and the general artistic reputation, one need not forget that only three out of eleven songs here are political — the other eight, predictably, are about how hard it is, in a million different hard ways, to forge out comfortable relations between a male and a female spirit. Ironically, the political songs are the weakest of the lot: ʽTender Comradeʼ is an accappella piece where Billy has to struggle so hard to keep in tune, he does not have much strength left to worry about emotional resonance (and the anti-war lyrics aren't that great, either), and ʽRotting On Remandʼ is just a generic prison ballad where even the lyrics do not advance that much in comparison to your average Woody Guthrie.
There are, however, quite a few songwriting mini-gems in the love story department, where we should probably single out ʽThe Price I Payʼ, built on a lovely piano swirl with a tinge of sweet sorrow and a catchy, if a little too repetitive, vocal hook; the uptempo ʽLife With The Lionsʼ, saved from its underdone-country fate with a playful, inspired, poppy piano part from new band member Cara Tivey (she gives the whole thing a bit of a New Orleans vibe, which is always cool to have); and, uh, I guess ʽMust I Paint You A Pictureʼ, opening with a guitar line that seems like somebody'd spent way too much time listening to Hendrix's ʽLittle Wingʼ, also has a certain subtle charm nested somewhere in between guitar, piano, and vocals, though I am still in the process of trying to come up with an adequate description for it (the charm, that is).
The big problem is that, as a love poet, Billy still has a huge problem coming up with his own unique perspective on things — other than the occasional melodic invention and the occasional astute or cool-sounding lyrical twist such as "between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary there was Mary", he still does not do anything here that hadn't already been done by Elvis Costello, that is, the «intellectual-psychological love ballad with poppy overtones, non-professionally sung with some half-charming, half-irritating British accent». And therefore, each time he writes (or, rather, «under-writes») a song whose hookpower is anything less than obvious, it is instantaneously forgettable — no free, freshly painted memory cells to accommodate these unremarkable new lodgers. Sometimes they get a very nice, very tasteful chamber-pop sound going on (ʽThe Only Oneʼ, with a lonely viola dueting with the acoustic guitar), but nothing in the song rises above mildly pleasant — the pain is only hinted at, never properly conveyed by the instrumentation.
In the end, love and politics come together once again, and at least do a good double job of providing a satisfactory final note with the tragicomic ʽWaiting For The Great Leap Forwardʼ, the closest thing this record has to an anthem, but an ironic one: "Join the struggle while you may / The revolution is just a T-shirt away", Billy says, either urging you to dive inside a Che Guevara tricotage shell, or making fun of you for doing so — you go ahead and try to determine his level of intellectual penetration yourself. The song is bouncy, catchy, has a group chorus romp sort of thing to it, enough to forgive the album for its frequent moments of boredom and ultimately maybe even try and issue it a faint thumbs up, just because, you know, it is at least Billy's first thorough attempt at an actual pop-rock album, and it deserves some way of recognition.