REVIEW: Billy Bragg: Must I Paint You A Picture?
Billy Bragg: Must I Paint You A Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg [Outside Music, 2003] (mp3)
Three words? essential and in-
For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, Billy Bragg's not much of an anyone. His current "Tell Us the Truth" tour with Steve Earle and Jenny Toomey is making the back pages of the Entertainment sections, but for many, he's just the guy who recorded two albums of Woody Guthrie songs with Wilco. I was born in the UK, was raised by Labour-voting parents, and am an incorrigible listener of singer-songwriters - and yet I too was unaware of the great bulk of his work. The name I knew, sure. A handful of the songs, even. I own the first of the aforementioned Wilco collaborations (the Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue), and considered going to hear him when he came to town. For all this, however, I would hardly call myself familiar with the Bragg oeuvre: Billy had eluded me.
It's with pleasure, then, that I listen to these two-and-a-half discs of passionate songwriting. Must I Paint You a Picture? traces Bragg's career in proper chronological fashion, picking out the best bits and (unfortunately) putting only-so-so achievements on display as well. Disc One starts in 1983, covering Bragg's early amp-slung-on-back days, punk-folk proper, through into the 1990s - and Disc Two - where blander pop-rock arrangements undermine the passion of Bragg's delivery. Where he's good, however, Billy Bragg is very, very good. His lyrics are plain and unassuming, the polar opposite of Leonard Cohen or Stephen Malkmus. Simple stories tumble out of simple images, unfolding to reveal human sentiments that are achingly true, full of remorse and giddy joy, anger and frustration and love.
"A New England" is a thrilling, perfect opener. "I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl." A 26-year-old Bragg sings over brisk electric-guitar passes, like a tough rocking out in an empty carpark. It ends with a delicate, vaudevillean strum - the punchline of a savvy young songwriter who knows not to take himself so seriously. The classic "St. Swithin's Day" shows passion and regret, yearning set against glittering guitar. "Walk Away Renee" is a brilliant reimagining of the Left Banke classic, a spoken-word "what if" on relationships and their endings. The closing line is breathtaking in its little truth, and it epitomizes Billy Bragg's strength. He tells stories without messing about, his metaphors even more poignant for the way they don't mess about. The pictures fascinate me - I don't quite know why they hit so hard.
"She became a magic mystery to me, and / we'd sit together in double history twice a week, and / sometimes we'd take the same way home, and / it's surprising how quick a little rain can clear the streets..." (from "Saturday Boy")The examples are almost endless; he's like a craftsman who makes elaborate sculptures with the most crude tools. What's more, he always means what he sings. There's beautiful earnestness here, the sort that makes the non-regret of "Walk Away Renee" even more affecting. This sincerity lends power to his protest songs (see the blazing "World Turned Upside Down," stabs of electric guitar like prototypes for Jonny Greenwood's crunches on "Creep"), and they're deserving of their notoreity. Even on clumsier attempts such as "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward," the force of Bragg's spirit compels me to sing along. The high-points (see above) are enough to forgive the middling ones (the inane "There Is Power In A Union," the 'groove' of "The Warmest Room").
Even on Disc Two, past the heinous piano-country-rock of "Sulk," the woeful electric blues of "NPWA," the gaudy eighties jangle of "Sexuality" - like a middle-aged take on the Cure, - there are tracks that show an astonishing insight. "Cindy of 1000 Lives" lets guitars dazzle over the pounding of drums, sighs foregrounding the wistful confusion of Bragg's protagonist: "Blue velvet America /
Half glimpsed in the headlights between the trees." "Tank Park Salute," while perhaps a little precious, is a truly beautiful memorial to a deceased father. And of the three songs drawn from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, "Ingrid Bergman" and "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" are gorgeous selections, humble and shining.
Bragg's most recent songs - recorded with his new band, The Blokes - have little to offer this listener; it's blues-tinged rock that falls too close to easy-listening (and whose political rhetoric feels woefully old-fashioned). "Take Down the Union Jack," which closes the album, is charming in its own nostalgic way, but in 2003, its final, repeated lyrics ("...to be an anglo hyphen saxon in anglo dot co dot uk") feel decidedly silly. (King Normal and The Rug seem to have realized this, as these lyrics have been excised from their remix (which appears on the bonus record). Unfortunately, they have failed to realize that their remix is shit.)
Must I Paint You A Picture? includes 50 songs. Consequently, despite the album's subtitle, quite a lot of inessential Billy Bragg is herein contained. Nevertheless, as a sample of this songwriter's iconoclastic talent, it's a tremendous set: there's something for the revolutionary, something for the lovesick fool, something for the human. Billy Bragg plays music for people with hearts.