So the Bard of… Woking has reached 20 years, out-lasted Thatcherism – the inspiration for a lot of his early material – and shows no sign of slowing down or letting up on the oppressors of the downtrodden.
To underestimate Billy Bragg as just a political commentator, though, would be a gross injustice to one of this country’s greatest exponents of the love song. He doesn’t throw the word at you like some ham-fisted, chart fly-by-night – he doesn’t have to – but he can make your heart melt with the most honest of observations.
If you don’t believe me, listen to The Fourteenth Of February, which is every bit as beautiful as Elvis Costello‘s Alison. Like Costello, Tom Waits and Morrissey, you don’t have to own every album to know that when you get in the bodywork might be slightly different but the engine is the constant.
As the album is sequenced in chronological order we start off with A New England, a song taken into the charts by long-time collaborator, the much loved and missed Kirsty MacColl. While she appears on various other tracks, this is his song, raw and beautiful.
It is this rawness that is both his attraction and his detractor, especially to the unconverted. Billy’s voice does what it says on the tin. Love it or don’t, but with songs like St Swithin’s Day and Levi Stubbs’ Tears he wins time and time again, or as Billy would probably put it, using an analogy of the beautiful game – he shoots, he scores.
The second CD sees him using the band format which spawned the early ’90s singles Sexuality, You Woke Up My Neighbourhood (with contribution from Michael Stipe) and Accident Waiting To Happen, before moving onto the superb William Bloke album, where Billy has mellowed just a little with the responsibilities that family life entails (“I steal a kiss from you, in the supermarket/I walk you down the aisle, you fill my basket” from Brickbat).
A couple of tracks from the excellent 1998 album Mermaid Avenue, where he collaborated with Wilco putting the music to some lost lyrics of Woody Guthrie, shows the admiration that he has for a kindred spirit. His thoughtful accompaniment, and duet with Natalie Merchant on Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key all makes perfect sense – no fuss, no nonsense.
If you feel that with Labour in power (even New Labour) that Bragg’s work is done, then listen to All You Fascists Bound To Lose where the terrier in him is back chewing your ankles. The terrier is older perhaps, but with age comes memory, and those memories include the Poll Tax and the Miners’ strike, the haves and the have-nots.
So 40 tracks from 20 years, and, just for good measure, an extra 10 out-takes and outpourings on a third CD, including the old favourite A13, Trunk Road To The Sea, a homage to his homeland played to the tune of Route 66.
“Billy Bragg reminds us that politics need not be po-faced, and that sad songs need not be Celine Dion,” say Andrew Collins’ sleeve notes. Let’s pray to God that Ms Dion is one person who doesn’t get to hear this album – the consequences are too dire to contemplate.