BILLY BRAGG: WILLIAM BLOKE (1996)
1) From Red To Blue; 2) Upfield; 3) Everybody Loves You Babe; 4) Sugardaddy; 5) A Pict Song; 6) Brickbat; 7) The Space Race Is Over; 8) Northern Industrial Town; 9) The Fourteenth Of February; 10) King James Version; 11) Goalhanger.
After the relatively colossal (in comparison to everything that preceded it) Don't Try This At Home, Billy's late-coming follow-up at first feels underwhelming. Five years in the planning and making, delayed by personal life events such as the birth of his son, it is a very low-key effort, featuring none of the major guest stars from 1991 and feeling far more intimate, insecure, vulnerable, and confused. Some reviewers took that for a bad sign, and stated that Bragg's muse must have abandoned him, at least temporarily. I don't think so, though.
See, this here William Bloke (a rough downgrade on William Blake) is not a return to the young and innocent days of electro-busking. Even if the arrangements are stripped, they are varied: Billy makes as much use of the acoustic guitar and piano here as he makes of the old electric, and the songs do not feel underworked and so much in desperate need of a rhythm section as they did on his first records. This is just a regular singer-songwriter album, produced in the intimate-confessional singer-songwriter paradigm, but with a sufficient amount of pop hooks to keep things from becoming too boring. It is true that the songs are not quite as well written and produced, but this is somehow to be expected — any record that puts the emphasis on «deeply personal» usually suffers in the hook department, since the artist tends to invest more in lyrics and vocal expression than he does in captivating chord changes.
The good news is that, to an extent, the investment pays off: some of the songs here, while not at all melodically great, show a level of rough sentimentality that was not yet achieved before. Perhaps it is his family life experience or something, but a song like ʽFrom Red To Blueʼ, where the protagonist is forced to either accept his partner's compromises for the Establishment or split ("should I vote red for my class or green for our children?") really does give us a confused, disappointed, deeply puzzled individual, who is capable of expressing all that mixed ball of emotions in three minutes' time, helped out by a little electric guitar and a little electric organ. If you scrutinize the lyrics too hard, you'll find the man to be judgmental ("the ideals you've opted out of, I still hold them to be true / I guess they weren't so firmly held by you"), but not nearly enough to become repelling — just scratching his head in bewilderment.
Elsewhere, the vaudevillian romantic-melancholic piano ballad ʽEverybody Loves You Babeʼ sounds exactly like Randy Newman (save the accent) and would probably have been much lauded had it been written by the latter. ʽSugardaddyʼ, an indictment of spoiled parents, uses melodic vocal harmonies for the chorus (even some sha-la-la's!) and sounds like a cross between 1970s McCartney and Ray Davies — which, for Billy, is at least an unpredictable novelty, and actually I think it works well. And then there's ʽBrickbatʼ, probably the most personal tune on the album, whose mournful string accompaniment reflects the song's confused introspection: "I used to want to plant bombs at the last night of the proms / But now you'll find me with the baby in the bathroom", Billy either complains of his weakness or acknowledges his maturation.
Anyway, it is easy to see why the critics, expecting yet another powerful anti-Establishment blast from the man, were miffled — but Billy Bragg is not crazy, he's normal, and every normal person sooner or later has to acknowledge that routine and mundane affairs are as much a part of one's life as rallies, protests, and revolutions. Besides, routine and mundane affairs as presented here are merely a natural continuation of the man's romantic side that was there all the way from the start; and it's not as if he's completely settled down, either — ʽNorthern Industrial Townʼ is a half-ironic, half-compassionate look at life you-know-where, and ʽA Pict Songʼ takes an obscure poem by Rudyard Kipling (Billy Bragg covering imperialist scum? No way!) and turns it into the album's only electro-busking anthem, with a thick distorted guitar tone and an anthemic refrain with which Billy does his best to give it a revolutionary stance.
Throw in a couple merry numbers like the brass-led upbeat pop tune ʽUpfieldʼ and the album closer ʽGoalhangerʼ, a cleverly worded exercise in character assassination ("he hangs around like a fart in a Russian space station" is particularly expressive) set to a toe-tappy ska beat — and you get yourself a fairly assured thumbs up type album. Yes, it has to sink in a little bit after the major shakedown of Don't Try This At Home, and there are a few other ballads here that do very little for me, so we're not talking perfection or anything, but the album as a whole makes a sensible, sincere, and heartfelt soft counterpoint to its throbbing predecessor, and besides, every social activist-musician needs to sing about babies in bathrooms every once in a while — it's not as if he were shitting out little red flags every time he goes to that bathroom, anyway.