BILLY BRAGG: ENGLAND, HALF-ENGLISH (2002)
1) St. Monday; 2) Jane Allen; 3) Distant Shore; 4) England, Half English; 5) NPWA; 6) Some Days I See The Point; 7) Baby Faroukh; 8) Take Down The Union Jack; 9) Another Kind Of Judy; 10) He'll Go Down; 11) Dreadbelly; 12) Tears Of My Tracks.
Curiously, it took Billy almost twenty years to do this, together with the experience of working with Wilco and then with his own specially assembled band, The Blokes — but England, Half-English finally does the trick: here be a pretty decent «political pop» record, where the majority of songs is given over to liberal-political manifestos, and yet does not suck from a detachedly musical standpoint. Yes, that's a very rare thing in general, and almost like a first for Billy, whose best musical numbers up to now were usually of a lyrical nature.
This may be, of course, due to active collaboration with The Blokes, who, for this album, also included Ian McLagan of the Faces on keyboards, and Lu Edmonds of The Damned and PiL on guitar — and about half of the songs here credit them both or at least one of them as co-writers. More than that, ʽSt. Mondayʼ, the spritely record opener, is credited to Billy solo, but the cheery piano rolls that open and then dominate the tune are prime McLagan — nothing like a true veteran of Brit-pop-rock lending his spirit and good will to make a tune so optimistically infectious, especially for all those who, like Billy, hate working on Mondays.
But who did what and why is all just speculation; the pure fact is that I really like the record and think that it hits home more often than it does not. Even the title track, which, as you have probably already guessed, lashes out at anti-immigrant sentiments by accentuating the perpetually mixed nature of English culture ("St. George was born in Lebanon / How he got here I don't know / And those three lions on his shirt / They never sprung from England's dirt") and could have allowed itself doing and being nothing else whatsoever (Important Social Statement being enough for liberal musical critics), is a fairly odd musical concoction that deliberately tries mixing together elements of Latin and African rhythms, with a little bit of vaudeville in between. It's danceable, it's catchy, it's got a rippin' percussion track, and it makes some good culturological points — what's not to like? Unless you're a member of the Enoch Powell fan club or something. (Like Eric Clapton.) (Who would now deny it.) (But truth will out!)
Stuff like ʽNPWAʼ (ʽNo Power Without Accountabilityʼ) is more trivial musically — just a straightahead mid-tempo blues rocker — but it still sounds okay, as emphasis is made on the sternness, harshness of the arrangement, with all the musicians (particularly the drummer and the organ player) getting into the same accusatory spirit as Billy and hammering out these largely familiar chords with meaningful determination. And while most people will only comment on ʽBaby Faroukhʼ from an "Oh look, here's a happy song about a pretty baby written from a pro-immigration perspective!" (you never can really tell, though — it could be about Freddie Mercury, for all we know), the song actually has a fun guitar melody and a classy instrumental break, equally divided between pretty acoustic and electric slide guitar licks. (The vocal harmonies are a little hicky, though — a somewhat clichéd representation of the «Oriental ladies chanting a newborn baby's praises» idea).
There's a couple really good songs here, too, where «good» means «deep-cutting» rather than just «satisfactory». ʽHe'll Go Downʼ, for instance, is a subtle, haunting ballad where Billy becomes Tom Petty when singing the chorus, but usually tries to be Leonard Cohen, and the organ and the guitars play little contemplative melodies off each other in spooky-midnight mode. And ʽAnother Kind Of Judyʼ, following an almost Madchester-style rhythm, might be the best fully arranged properly Eighties-style pop song Billy ever put on record — a decade too late, perhaps, but then nothing is really too late in the 21st century, where you can be anybody from Socrates to Kurt Cobain and still feel at home with at least one target audience group.
Anyway, by the time he gets around to the smarty-pants ʽTears Of My Tracksʼ — reverting a Smokey Robinson title to sing a lament for his freshly sold vinyl collection — the record has fulfilled its proper function and proven that yes, sincere and straightforward liberal propaganda need not be defiantly anti-musical, no matter how many hardcore artists try to convince you otherwise. A masterpiece for the ages this might not be, but it gets its thumbs up anyway. Now it's up to you, Ted Nugent, to take up the challenge!