In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford
rediscovers the album.
It's not the size that matters; it's how you use it. Billy
Bragg proved it in 1983, entering the UK album charts with a
16-minute debut that has lost none of its appeal in an age
when 50-minute-plus releases are a test of endurance.
Life's A Riot With Spy vs Spy announced Bragg as the
working-class bloke's next great troubadour, Woody Guthrie
reborn as an Essex lad, a socialist struggling as much with
the politics of sex as he was with the politics of Margaret
Bragg divvies up the personal and political roughly 50:50 on
the seven-track album, even managing in a couple of numbers
to marry a sense of having been cheated of a prosperous
future with the futility of a dead-end romance. This mix of
polemic and love song reframes punk's anti-establishment
message, giving voice to frustrations in a way that
acknowledges everyday human needs.
The reverberant jangle of Bragg's guitar evokes the chilly
solitude of a soundcheck in an empty suburban hall.
Accompanied by nothing else, he knocks out one tune after
another with the skill of a practised busker, who has learned
to broaden his palette by mining the instrument for its
percussive qualities. With no song longer than three minutes,
and a brace that clock in at less than two, the set is as
efficient as he could hope to make it.
As The Milkman Of Human Kindness, Bragg offers up an extra
pint, as The Man In The Iron Mask, it's a blind eye to
infidelity, and each time he reveals himself as a man who has
yet to find his emotional centre. In To Have And To Have Not
and The Busy Girl Buys Beauty, he rises more confidently to
take on institutional hypocrisy and crushed human potential,
much clearer in his world-view.
He's not looking for a new England, though, or to change the
world. For now, he'll settle for another girl.