December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

Billy Bragg

It seems a miracle that British rocker Billy Bragg exists and makes music in conservative, too often boring 1988. At a time when lots of young adults care about nothing outside the walls of their luxury condos, Bragg, 30, displays an unswerving moral conscience and a sense of humor about himself. On this terrific album, Bragg redefines what it means to be a rock and roll rebel—maybe “revives” is a better word. What he seems to be doing is reaching back for the politics and passion of ’60s music that got lost in the stoned-out escapism, self-indulgent weirdness and flamboyant fashions that have dominated much of pop music since. Bragg defiantly bucks the trends by writing sweet melodies that are easy to sing and adding lyrics that are clear, clever and meaningful. All 11 of the songs on Workers Playtime sound so smoothly crafted that it’s as if Bragg discovered the tunes whole instead of struggling to form them. Must I Paint You a Picture, a heartbreaking duet with keyboardist Cara Tivey, mourns an affair that was destroyed by too much analysis. Singing to an ex-lover who has become “a little black cloud in a dress,” he confesses, “The temptation/ To take the precious things we have apart/ To see how they work/ Must be resisted for they never fit together again.” Bragg emotes with equal fervor in an a cappella rendition of Tender Comrade, an antiwar anthem: “Will you say that we were heroes/ Or that fear of dying among strangers/ Tore our innocence and false shame away?” Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards lets Bragg display his pragmatism alongside his leftist politics: “So join the struggle while you may/ The revolution is just a T-shirt away.” Bragg has mellowed since the days when he spat out his songs punk style, accompanied only by his single electric guitar. Now a pleasant folk-rock combo backs him as, in a Cockney accent so thick it makes Eliza Doolittle sound like the Queen of England, he begs young people to take action about political issues that affect them. Such sermonizing has led some cynics to call Bragg sanctimonious. The inner sleeve of the album does bear a 1926 quote from Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, stating his goal to set high standards in his personal life as well as his public causes. Still, few modern performers would have the good humor or perspective to sing the chorus to Bragg’s Life with the Lions: “I hate the arsehole I become everytime I’m with you.” On the jacket of Workers Playtime are the words “Capitalism is killing music,” but Bragg contradicts himself. Any economic system that produces an album as good as this can’t be all bad. (Elektra)

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