British Punk-Folk Troubadour Releases Era-Defining Protest Album
On his latest mini-album Bridges Not Walls, British punk-folk troubadour Billy Bragg has given us the first real 21st Century Anglo-American protest album, and not a second too soon. In the wake of the sickening one-two socio-political gut punch of Brexit and the election of our 45th U.S. President, not to mention the insane litany of cultural paradigm shifts that have been set into effect since, it’s surprising that more protest songs haven’t come out.
Bragg’s signature punk-folk style is perfectly put to use here, particularly on the first track “The Sleep of Reason.” Crunchy, liberal guitar overdrive and sparse, aggressive percussion form the perfect skeleton for this poignant analysis of the 2016 election results. The title is taken from an eighteenth century etching by politically-charged Romantic era artist Francisco Goya, and forms a jarring, lyrically jumbled chorus that adds to the uneasiness of the subject. It’s the first of many artistic Easter eggs that Bragg uses throughout the record, demanding that one dig a little deeper into his subject matter which references everything from Goya to accidental British activist Saffiyah Khan, who Bragg has devoted a whole song to, “Saffiyah Smiles.” The story of this young British woman of Bosnian and Pakistani descent who stood up to members of the neo-fascist English Defense League when they surrounded a Muslim woman in a hijab at a protest didn’t get much press in the U.S. Khan stepped in to defend the woman, smiling peacefully the whole time, even as police escorted her away from the scene for her own safety. Bragg’s song, a sweet ’70s influenced folk ballad, makes a powerful, restrained statement of love’s triumph over hatred from the first lyrics “just like Victor Hugo told, to love is to act and her act was bold.” The repetitive chorus, “this is what solidarity looks like,” fades into recorded audio of a crowd chanting the same mantra from a demonstration, ending the song on a deeply moving note of optimism.
Tackling the urgent threat of climate change on “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood,” Bragg teases an anti-peace-and-love song with the first lyrics “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could save the world and all simply by collecting up tin cans and empty bottles” before making his only misstep into School House Rocks didacticism. It’s a heavy-handed line he also skirts in “Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted,” though it’s impossible to avoid being affected by the icky transparency of lines like “if you’re not white or male or compliant the system is designed to keep you in your place.”
A cover of Anais Mitchell’s song “Why We Build the Wall” is another Easter egg: the song, from her 2010 concept album Hadestown, is utterly chilling from today’s political perspective. “How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out our enemy,” Mitchell sang along with a folky acoustic guitar, originally telling the story of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In 2017, Bragg hammers it out on an overdriven electric guitar (or possibly an acoustic with a ton of distortion) and spits out the lyrics which have taken on a shocking new meaning in the era of Trump: “Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty… we have work and they have not, and our work is never done, and the war is never won.” Just try not to get goosebumps.
With all the highly savvy artistic and cultural elements that Bragg has woven together on this timely musical tapestry, it’s a brilliant surprise that his greatest creative achievement on the record is the final track, the simple piano ballad “Full English Brexit,” where he takes on the role of “the Other” from a liberal progressive standpoint — in this case, the hapless conservative traditionalist who fears change and thus voted for Brexit, citing: “I’m not racist, all I want is to make things how they used to be, but change is strange and nobody’s listening to me.” Of course, that sentiment is interchangeable with the average Trump voter’s reasoning. The result is a breathtaking exploration of the concept of “the Other” on which our entire divisive socio-political climate currently hinges. “Don’t be offended dear neighbor, it’s not you, this is all about us.” And therein lies the hypocrisy of our times: by fixating on the tribalist “Us,” we forget the universal “Us” and thereby tear ourselves apart, just as the Powers That Be intended.
With so much to unpack on a six-track album, it’s a true testament to Bragg’s experience and vision that he’s able to tackle this kind of depth and sound so effortless. He may soften the blow at times with gentle pedal steel and twinkling mandolin, but this is music with a serious purpose. Bragg has given us an urgent, essential political diatribe on this record, and it is every bit as unsettling and cathartic as the times themselves. As he writes on his website: “Music has the ability to make you see things from another perspective… the very currency of music is empathy.”