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Billy Bragg | Must I Paint You A Picture? (The Essential Billy Bragg) (Cooking Vinyl)
As your scribe's laconic, left-wing politics teacher once remarked of his time in 1980s political strife, "Billy Bragg is a lovely bloke, but every political rally you went to... he was always bloody there." An astute summation from a man whose relative rags-to-begrudging-respectability life-story pretty much mirrors Bragg's. Locked in this affectionately mocking nutshell is a moot point; do we take Billy Bragg's twenty-odd year career for granted or do we just keep tolerating his presence because his humour and humility stopped many of us from choking on the stale depressing air of England in the '80s? This lavish, low-priced fifty-track 3CD retrospective set holds the former assertion to the fore.
CD1 holds all the career-defining '80s material, wherein Bragg's 'Bard of Barking' nametag came to underline his every move. Fashioning himself as Essex's answer to Woody Guthrie or Joe Strummer if he'd never discovered reggae (or drummers), Bragg's stark, largely one voice/one electric guitar songs from 1983's 'Life's A Riot With Spy Versus Spy' EP to 1988's 'Worker's Playtime' LP delivers many semi-classic songs. Wedging both gritty polemic and plaintive heart-renderings produced some really remarkable songs that still resonate in today's less dynamic socio-political climate. From the ragged New England, through the touching-as-hell Between The Wars via the joyful Greetings To The New Brunette to the self-deprecating anthem Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards, what Bragg lacked in vocal 'perfection' he made up for through a non-embarrassing blend of pop and politics.
CD2 captures Bragg in the 1990s and beyond, and for many purists this period is akin to Dylan going electric. More fool them, because although Bragg's more fulsome band arrangements have sometimes come unstuck, at least he's learnt to musically progress without passing up on his principles. Bragg's best 90s/early-00s work has come through his clever choices in collaborators. Johnny Marr's slinky guitars on Sexuality give an otherwise clumsy but well-meaning lyric the capacity to reach pure pop terrain, the enrolment of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, gives You Woke Up My Neighbourhood a soaring jangle-folk edge and the collaborations with Wilco on two collections of unheard Woody Guthrie songs ('Mermaid Avenue' Vols. 1 & 2) should  appeal to the core readership of CwaS. But, despite the good employment policy applied to his session bands, Bragg's recent recordings with his workmanlike (Blockhead-wannabe) touring band The Blokes are largely embarrassing cod-afro beat messes, with NPWA being the worst offender here.
But where Bragg sags on this exhaustive collection there's nearly always a silver lining to compensate. The smart inclusion of his best ever 90s B-side - the sublime Sulk - and a third CD of top-notch live/studio rarities easily paper over the cracks between the great and not so good. All in all, this is probably all the Billy Bragg you could ever want or need... and a little more besides.

Adrian Pannett
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003