I've been a Billy Bragg fan for more than half of my life. But, as sometimes happens with old friends, the calls and mails and meetings have tapered off in frequency as well as enjoyment. In Bragg's case, he hasn't released an album of all-new original material since 1996's William Bloke (not counting the two albums of Woody Guthrie lyrics he has put to music with Wilco), and this latest missive, England, Half English, finds him struggling.
When I first "met" Billy he was the rare solo performer who flailed away on an electric guitar, creating a unique synthesis of Bob Dylan and The Clash. He delivered songs that delved deeply into the human condition, both on a macro (the political tunes) and a micro (the personal ones) level. To know Billy Bragg in the 1980s was to hear a charming voice from left field who railed against Reagan and Thatcher while trying to carve out his small share of domestic happiness.
Since then, Bragg has become more musically ambitious while slipping into lyrical laziness but the simpler melodies and sparser arrangements he once favored resonated much more deeply than the full-band arrangements he now gravitates toward. Lyrically, I suspect that part of the problem is rust, while part of the problem is age a song about bumping into an ex-girlfriend, then coming home to tell the wife about it ("Jane Allen") just doesn't stick to the ribs, while the more overtly political numbers feel heavy-handed and preachy.
England, Half English opens on a bum note with "St. Monday," a tired-sounding, piano-led attempt at a sing-along denouncing the repetition and tedium of the workweek. Yet this weak song didn't quite prepare me for some of the even worse tracks ahead, especially his attempts at what used to be marketed as "world beat" music on the title track, "Baby Faroukh," and "Another Kind of Judy." "England, Half English" is the best of these three, as Bragg employs an exaggerated Cockney accent while offering amusing examples of how so many "English" things from Morris dancing to Morrissey, as well as curries and the lions displayed on the national football team's jersey are actually products of immigration and assimilation. Yet ultimately the song feels too much like a cheap homage to Ian Dury, from the accent to the shuffling, ska-inflected rhythm. Elsewhere, his voice just doesn't work against the percolating, African-inspired grooves the way, say, Paul Simon's does on his own stylistically similar songs.
I really, really want to endorse the song entitled "NPWA," as it concerns something I find very troubling: the fact that so many policy decisions in our "democratic" societies are so strongly influenced by corporations and unelected, non-representative organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. But in terms of the heavy-handed execution it's a clunker that would make a great pamphlet or preamble to a petition, but ain't so good when sung. Similarly, "Take Down the Union Jack," while a musical return to Bragg's old "one man with a guitar" concept, stumbles through some hefty lines in a way that worked a decade and a half ago on "Help Save the Youth of America" but doesn't pass muster here.
Okay, the good stuff is there any? There's one song, "Some Days I See the Point," that I keep coming back to. It's a simple, effective number about going up a hill and looking about to see the larger surroundings and regain your perspective. Of course, I'm a sucker for understated lines like "I don't think shopping is a metaphor for life," too, even as I wish I could edit a few words out to make the flow smoother.
"Washed up on a distant shore, can't go home anymore," Bragg sings on "Distant Shore." For most of England, Half English, that's an apt summary.