Billy Bragg: Bridges Not Walls

- Thirty-five years on from his first release, Billy Bragg remains as hardworking as in the days when he caught the train to gigs with his amp and guitar. His most recent projects though, which have been an album of railway-themed folk standards and a book on 1950's skiffle music, have seen his eyes firmly planted on the past.

Meanwhile, the present has snuck up on him. While Billy was travelling across the US exhorting the glory of the railway, that country was electing Donald Trump. As if that weren't enough, back in the UK, the reactionary right led a shock referendum win to leave the European Union. A lifelong socialist and protest singer like Billy Bragg could hardly sit and watch all this happen. Hence Bridges Not Walls: a six song mini-album with the fingerprints of Trump and Brexit all over it.

Despite his reputation as a picket-line rabble-rouser, Billy's political songs have always been personal in scope and his politics moderately rather than radically left-wing. So it's not a surprise that his response is not a savage takedown of his political opponents - his call is to build bridges, not barricades. The Trump-inspired opening track seems to echo Hillary Clinton's disparaging of "deplorables" in its Francisco Goya-referencing chorus "The sleep of reason produces monsters", yet it ends saying "the greatest threat to democracy is not fascism or fanaticism but our own complacency".

Elsewhere it's a similar story. The resurgence of neo-Nazis is referenced, but the response Bragg celebrates is the viral image of anti-racism protester Saffiyah Khan facing them down with a smile. The song aimed at climate deniers pleads "the oceans they connect us all, we need to work together". Closing track Full English Brexit is (as well as the latest in a long line of Billy Bragg puns) a sympathetic character study of an elderly white Brexit voter.

All in all, the impression is a bit like Billy is walking unarmed into a pitched battle asking "can't we all just get along?" It's hard to argue that a bit more compassion and empathy on all sides wouldn't be a good thing; but can Billy Bragg's good intentions and mid-tempo country-folk-punk heal the fractious political atmosphere of our time?

It's the age old question I guess of what the use of mixing pop and politics is. At least Billy Bragg, even as his hair gets greyer and his concert venues get cushier, is still concerned with real people and real struggles, not just political platitudes. It's easy to write righteous polemic, but Billy is concerned with tangible change - which means challenging the atomisation that simultaneously allows the continued procession of destructive economic policies and keeps us ensconced in our ideological bubbles. Well aware that at this point his preaching is directed at a well-established choir, Billy has aimed for a universal message and it's captured in the protest chant he samples - "this is what solidarity looks like."

- Andy Paine.


Album Details

Album Title: Bridges Not Walls
Artist: Billy Bragg
Record Label: (Cooking Vinyl)