There they are, lined up side-by-side: Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy (30th Anniversary Edition) and Tooth & Nail, right next to each other at the top of Billy Bragg's page on Spotify. This matters, not only because Bragg is supportive of what Spotify is doing with the music industry, but also because those two albums distinctly represent the past and the present of Bragg's career. The Alpha and the Momentary Omega, as it were.
"With regard to the anniversary of Life's a Riot, to tell you the truth it's a bit thirty shmirty as far as I'm concerned with the record," Bragg says, phoning in from England. "But the fact that after all this time there's still a room full of people in Cleveland who are interested in what I've got to say — that to me is really worth celebrating."
Bragg will be catching a flight to the North Shore next week, notching another gig in his storied career.
Last year's Tooth & Nail might not have the sonic edge that earlier Bragg records sported, but the razor-sharp power of his songwriting stands up through each tune (all of which were recorded live, by the way). The journeyman's attitude and wistful observational wit that one might pick up on the docile "January Song" or the breezy "Your Name on My Tongue" can be traced quite simply back to, say, "Greetings to the New Brunette" or "Wishing the Days Away." The blend of political critique and love song may tilt more resoundingly toward the latter these days, but the humanity is still full-on Bragg.
The songwriter, now 56, came up in a time of great upheaval in England. His career incubated under Margaret Thatcher, whose conservative policies worked to crush organized labor and promote nationalism across the country. Busking around London, Bragg honed a sharp, critical tone against his government's social and economic policies. Later, John Major's rule in the 1990s kept Bragg's fires burning.
Age and more than a decade of Labour Party governance in the United Kingdom downshifted his political acceleration (a fact played up to no end by the music press), but Bragg's always been more interested in the human element. Dissent is one thing. Getting people to gather together and create something is a whole different motivation in an active life.
"Music still acts as a social medium. In the 20th century, it had a monopoly. It was the dominant social medium. It was the way that we spoke to one another as people. If you wanted to hear the voice of your generation, you knew where to listen," Bragg says. "Now, that's changed. There are many more people speaking and expressing their views on the Internet. But the fact that people are still willing to come see me play and listen to what I've got to say suggests to me that music's still got that power. You know, we have something that you can't get on the Internet. I think that thing might be communion."
Probably his most significant entry point to the American audience and its unquenchable want for communion came when he teamed up with Wilco to record the Mermaid Avenue albums during the 1990s. The three-volume series shed light on the legacy of Woody Guthrie as Bragg and Wilco revived reams of Guthrie's old lyric sheets and set music to them.
"I'm searching for the spirit of Woody Guthrie," he told a crowd in the U.S. during the recording sessions. And he did just that. The Mermaid Avenue tapes distill a particularly American soul across time and into once-unimaginable forms. Jeff Tweedy, for his and Wilco's part, was wholly tuned in to the cultural perspective of the bard. And this is some of Bragg's best stuff too (see "My Flying Saucer," "Walt Whitman's Niece," "Ingrid Bergman," for instance).
"[Guthrie] was the original singer-songwriter, wasn't he? He was the original punk rocker, as well. 'This Land is Your Land' was his alternative version of Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America.' He was an alternative musician," Bragg says. "Perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned from him was his lack of cynicism. You know, he never wrote a cynical song in his life. Understanding that cynicism is a real enemy for any of us who want to make a better world, and that giving in to cynicism destroys any hope of making a better society: Being alerted to that by working with Woody, that's probably been his real legacy to my work."
Of course, Bragg has scratched out dozens upon dozens of songs that shed light on various points of that very legacy. "I Keep Faith," he cites in particular, is one that exemplifies not only the clear message of hope in his music, but also that notion of clearing away one's own cynicism.
"Undoubtedly, when I'm in Cleveland, I'll play that song and I'll introduce it and talk about the reason we have to fight against our cynicism," he says. "One of the ways I fight against my cynicism is that I sing these angry songs about things that really piss me off, and then when everyone applauds I don't feel so bad about it. I'm only trying to make sense of the world, like I always was."
Billy Bragg, Billy the Kid
7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 15, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $40 ADV, $45 DOS, musicboxcle.com.