Billy Bragg – Bridges Not Walls (Cooking Vinyl)

Billy Bragg releases a six song mini album Bridges Not Walls through his enduring long-term relationship with Independent record label Cooking Vinyl. His first studio album of original songs since 2013’s critically applauded Tooth & Nail. Bragg again picks up the baton and runs with the causes that make him boil, pointing his aim at Trump’s America, instability in Europe and the rising racist tensions within.

The release includes four of his recent 2017 download singles and two new compositions, Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted and Full English Brexit.  Bragg’s timing of this release comes among uncertain political times on which he states, “Life comes at you real fast these days. What’s a singer-songwriter to do when events keep challenging the way that we see the world? Before we’ve had a chance to digest one startling development, along comes another to throw us off balance again.”

Protest singer, political activist, campaigner, left wing anti-Thatcherite, Clash fan -and of course the unchallenged “Bard of Barking”, Billy Bragg has been a staple diet for many a working-class folk who feel oppressed or disenfranchised by The Establishment. A unique artist who has never conformed to toe the line, a cat amongst the fatted pigeons, a champion of “giving voice” to the repressed.

The album starts with The Sleep Of Reason which gives us a familiar, early career Bragg sound of minimalism. The lone wolf sound of a brightly over-driven guitar with room reverb, a voice and some minor percussion. He doesn’t need any production gloss to get his message across. Its classic Bragg, inspired in part, by a Francisco Goya etching, “The Sleep Of Reason That Produces Monsters” and applying that rhetoric to the US political events of 2016. Lyrics touch on a protagonist as he, “eases off the safety catch, On his second amendment rights’.

King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood is a lovely countryfied Americana ditty, I have to admit I love the sound of a swelling pedal steel guitar tone on any song, so I guess I’m slightly bias. Here he pictures us in the brown flood lands of Florida, with rising climate changes challenging our existence, proclaiming, “we have to act today”. It’s a confident warm sounding vocal performance.

Why We Build The Wall goes back into protest singer mode, with a single brutal guitar accompaniment to an angry vocal. Written by US singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2010, the message in this clearly applies to the current.

Fourth track, Saffiyah Smiles is an uplifting observation of a recent press photograph in the UK involving a defiant anti-racism protester, Saffiyah Khan, gallantly smiling and empowering her opposition, an aggressive English Defence League supporter. Braggs treatment of such a powerful image is given sensitivity with hints of lyrical absurdity. It’s a plodding, Hammond organ soaked skiffle sound, again low on the instrumentation replaying the chant “This is what solidarity looks like”.

New song, Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted, has some lovely stuff going on in the instrumentation, with a fine melody and chorus. It sounds great on the headphones with its subtle delicate tones reducing the lyric of stock market fragility.

The closer, Full English Brexit is a funny one. Funny in that its tongue in cheek sarcasm could be very easily be misinterpreted if not aware of Mr Braggs position on the Brexit question. It’s a slow funeral piano score lamenting the loss of all things British, from a staunch pro-leave perspective. A touchy subject, with him accepting at the end, “it’s a full English Brexit for me”.

At under twenty-five minutes, I think overall, the shortness of this album really works in its favour as Bragg’s over politicised message can become slightly overbearing listening… to some. Obviously keen to get this release out there whilst still relevant, I would say some of these songs will stand the test of time, even after the dust eventually settles.

Matt Lord