Wednesday, March 17, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1458: Billy Bragg

I’ve had a pretty amazing day in music. My buddy Ross got one of my music idols (Eric Bloom from Blue Oyster Cult) to send me a personal video greeting. He even sang along to “Take Me Away”. Holy crap. Best gift ever. Thanks to Ross and to Eric as well.

Disc 1458 is…. William Bloke

Artist: Billy Bragg

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover?  My copy of this album is part of a series re-issue, with a bunch of bonus content (more on that later). For this release they changed the cover and just put a typewriter. However, I’ve decided to honour the original cover which is [drum roll] a typewriter and a bunch of coloured bars. My assumption is that someone was playing the world’s most unwinnable version of tabletop Tetris (“another long bar that won’t rotate!!!”) and, losing their shit, dropped a typewriter on the game.

For those of you who would prefer just the typewriter, separate and safely apart from the angry Tetris bars, here you go.

You’re welcome.

How I Came To Know It: I come to Billy Bragg through my buddy Nick, but I’m not sure if he had this album, so it might have just been me burning through Billy’s back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up: I have nine Billy Bragg albums. Of those, I put “William Bloke” in at #2.

Ratings: 4 stars

Billy Bragg is constant in his exploration of social themes and political protest folk music, but over the years his sound has evolved considerably. With “William Bloke” he demonstrates some new tricks, while maintaining the qualities of his early work that fans will know and love.

Still present is Bragg’s signature guitar sound, which is big and bold, betraying his busker origins. This is particularly strong on “A Pict Song.” On the surface, it is a tune about the Pict resistance to Roman rule in England, but at a deeper level is the inevitable victory of the small and resilient over the overbearing and powerful. For a song ostensibly about a struggle over 1,500 years old, with lyrics over 100 (lifted from a Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name) it does an impressive job of infusing a dose of modern-day fist pumping. A big part of this is the language, which is gorgeous and evocative throughout, but the heavy-handed and authoritative chords on Bragg’s electric guitar are also a key part of the experience.

The album also ranges far afield from this traditional Bragg offering, adding the jump of a horn section here and there for emotional intensity. On “Upfield” those horns dig in and lift the song’s natural elation. On “Goalhanger” the horns play a minor key “wuh-waah” that makes it clear our main character is to be mocked and dismissed. “Goalhanger” is one of the best songs about upper class twits of the year you will hear. The horns set the mood, but Bragg’s lyrics do most of the damage. A sampling is in order:

“He's got the bonhomie of a game show host
And his handshake is so limp it's like meeting a ghost
His apologies are tired 'cause he uses them a lot
His excuses are so lame if they were horses they'd be shot
He lies through his teeth with impeccable grammar
In the game of life he's just a dreadful goalhanger”

A cutting ode about a guy we’ve all met at some point in our lives.

Bragg was approaching the age of 40 when he released “William Bloke” and songs about aging and changing perspectives are also in evidence. My favourite, “The Space Race is Over,” is a forlorn exploration of lost innocence. Bragg recalls his boyhood dreams of on day going to the moon. As he stands staring up at the sky with his son, the youthful enthusiasm comes back to him, but it feels pale and distant, knowing it is a dream that will never come true. Welcome to middle age, Billy.

As noted earlier, my copy of “William Bloke” is a re-issue that comes with a whole second disc of bonus content. It mostly consists of demo versions that serve to remind me (as demos usually do) that the final version is almost always better. There are a few good demos out there (Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘no cowbell’ version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” comes to mind) but mostly, they should have stayed in the studio as a reference point to something better.

The bonus disc also has a cool version of the Smiths’ “Never Had No One Ever” and a few other odds and ends, but the best thing about it is that it is on a separate disc! I can’t stress this enough, people. If you want to include additional material on your CD reissue please put it on a separate disc, so I can choose to hear just the original album if I wish. Kudos to Billy Bragg for getting this.

Also, kudos to him for making one of his best records ever, which given his storied career is no small feat.

Best tracks: From Red to Blue, Upfield, A Pict Song, The Space Race Is Over, Northern Industrial Town, Goalhanger

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