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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

16. Billy Bragg: Workers Playtime

Left-wing political activist and romantic troubadour Billy Bragg has been at it for over thirty years. From his punk-pub rock days in the seventies to his English folk sounds of today, Bragg has delivered a melange of political songs and songs of unrequited love...often with stark accompaniment. His third full-length album, 1988's Workers Playtime, explored a more expansive sound than fans had previously known. It was also his first collection of songs that relied more heavily upon his romantic storytelling skills than his polemics.

Bragg is fine being labeled a political songwriter...he is troubled by being dismissed as one. On Workers Playtime political songs are few and far between. Instead, he opts for a backing band and orchestral arrangements to strengthen beautifully spun tales of unanswered affection. This theme is present in the rollicking opener "She's Got A New Spell", and is spread evenly throughout the album until the fantastic finale, "The Great Leap Forwards".  Along the way, Billy Bragg demonstrates his amazing lyrical talent:

in the beautiful ballad "Must I Paint You A Picture" he writes, "Most important decisions in life are made between two people in bed. I found that out at my expense"
from "Little Time Bomb"--"He holds your letters but he can't read them as he fights this loneliness that you call freedom..."
from the poignant "Valentine's Day Is Over"--"Someday boy you'll reap what you've sown...and you will see that what's wrong with me is wrong everyone that you want to play your little games on..."
and again, from "Valentine's Day..."--"Thank you for the things you bought me. Thank you for the card. Thank you for the things you taught me when you hit me hard; that love between two people must be based on understanding. Until that's true you'll find your things all stacked out on the landing..."
finally, from the lively "Life With The Lions"--"I hate the arsehole I become everytime I'm with you...I know when I leave the room they say what's up with him, but love is not a game you play to win, is not a game you play to win."

Workers Playtime is a great call for a road-trip. It's a great sing-along as well (you really get to practice your thick English accent). I've included a video from back in the day. It's a live performance of "She's Got A New Spell"...a fun "tropical" version, if you will, that shows a bit of Bragg's lighter side. The second video is a 2006 appearance on the now defunct Henry Rollins Show from IFC (promoting the 2-disc remastered release of Workers Playtime). He performs an updated version of "The Great Leap Forwards". Many of the political references from 1988 are changed here, and he introduces himself rather egotistically stating, "Some people sing about love...some people sing about war...some people sing about a better world to come. Well I sing about all three and this is my theme song..." Bragg is an incredible activist. He works hard to make the world a better place...consistently, effectively standing up to those in power and providing a voice for those who must be heard. So I say you've earned that intro, Billy. Let 'em have it!

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