Native or not, Joe Strummer and John Lydon flogged England's caste culture from somewhere safely outside it. And when the Clash and the Sex Pistols strafed the U.K.'s withering imperial militarism or Conservative economics or royalism, there was as much collateral damage as intended damage (if there was any intended damage). They condemned the country's outdated institutions from top to bottom, from parliamentary budgeteers to office drones to those standing in line or manning the trenches. In contrast, Billy Bragg can present himself believably—and more or less truthfully—as a representative member of England's working-class majority. Often without judgment, Bragg offers poignant and articulate musical reminders of the many thorns in Britain's side. He has written engagingly and beautifully about alcoholism, racism, the consequences of failure to use birth control, soccer and hooliganism, self-destructive lack of ambition, infatuation with the United States, and domestic abuse. His most recent recording, Mr. Love & Justice, released in 2008, adds to the above list anti-immigration bigotry, preemptive war, extraordinary rendition, and the aggressive marketing of tobacco to the young and undereducated worldwide. And he's been doing this for more than 30 years.
Bragg's early records and performances introduced an artist with the adrenaline level of punk, and the social conscience of folk and protest singers. His intellect and empathy distanced him from those genres, and most others. In those days, popular causes were things like the disposition of the Falkland Islands and the British poll tax—topics almost quaint from this remove, compared to two long and ongoing wars started for reasons unremembered and a flammable Gulf of Mexico. What is the incentive to even have a go at this flailing planet with a song?
"You can't change the world by writing songs, but you can change someone's perspective of the world with a song," Bragg says. "I know because that's what happened to me. The first political act I ever took was to go on the Rock Against Racism march partly because the Clash were playing for that cause. I realized on that day that my generation would define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds. And that's what I aspire to do every time I get up and play—to change someone's perspective of themselves and of the world."
If Bragg's music is capable of changing a listener's perspective, one reason is because listening to it closely offers so many rewards. Rather than railing against faceless abstracts, Bragg relays the stories of fully formed characters, who can explain to you how the economy and the size of a paycheck effect the brutality of an abusive man, or how war impacts a household through loss. Come fade-out, it's often impossible to say whether you've just listened to a love song or a protest song. Bragg says he's familiar with that sensation.
"I write about the things that make me angry, mainly relationships and politics," he says. "Some are either/or, but the best ones are both. Never mind when its finished—I have songs that I don't know which way it's going to break hearts when I sing it. For instance, is ‘I Keep Faith' a song of dedication or a call to arms? That is down to the listener and what they need from the song."
"I Keep Faith" is one of the dozen new songs on Love & Justice, all of them worth hearing. Bragg's voice has softened some around the edges, and his arrangements have moved from the scuffled, punky sound he played in the '80s to a fuller, acoustic ensemble. (If you've had access to the Mermaid Avenue records, on which Bragg collaborated with Wilco and others in 1998 and 2000, you've heard the transition in progress.) Being sung a little more quietly does favors for the literary qualities of his songs. Still, once you warm to Bragg and his music, you come to acknowledge that instrumentation is beside the point. He's capable of playing his guitar—acoustic or electric—as if it were his band. A first-time listener could be forgiven if he or she made it to the end of 1991's Peel Sessions before realizing there's only one instrument.
"It's not a conscious thing," Bragg says when asked if he approaches composing with band or guitar in mind. "I use a band in the studio, but I am always aware that I will have to be able to perform these songs convincingly when solo."
The world has changed a great deal since Billy Bragg first reminded it that it could do better. Best not to think too long on whether or not anything has actually improved. That said, Bragg is one of the few 30-year music biz vets who approves of web browsers displacing record companies.
"This has empowered the artist by making it possible to find an audience online and communicate with them swiftly and regularly," he says. "This seems to have led to a rise in live music. On the other hand, there are no longer record companies out there willing to finance artists long-term, so we are forced to be more creative when looking to fund recordings."