It’s commonly regarded as fact that in addition to beer bonging and skipping class, college is a time for sexual experimentation. I never got in on any orgies or made out with many boys, but my jackleg sexual voyage involved a socialist crust punk named Jeannie. Sure, it’s hardly scandal, but for a Midwestern-bred classical music major, porking on a bed of Socialist Worker newspapers while listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees was the fringe. When the exotic thrill of discovering Propagandhi records wore off, our only musical common ground Billy Bragg’s Back To Basics.
As I independently explored Bragg’s later catalogue (’90s musts like Don’t Try This At Home and William Bloke) Jeannie objected: It wasn’t only the reverb-heavy production and synth string patches that didn’t jibe, she asserted Bragg’s politics had softened.
In a way, Jeannie had a point. Though ever the social commentator, Bragg’s later work lacked the enraged snarl of Back to Basics. Navigating the songwriter’s later albums is a journey of mixed political messages, unbridled sentimentality and horribly out-of-fashion production.
Thankfully, Rhino’s latest collection, Must I Paint You a Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg, is the perfect guide for that journey. Chronologically following Bragg’s career from its raging start through to the stylized present, … Paint You a Picture is a succinct overview of Bragg’s last 20 years. Beginning with an obligatory sampling of early hits (“A New England,” etc.), it quickly moves on to thoughtful inclusions of lesser-known mid-period goodies (“The Space Race is Over” and “Upfield”).
Aside from Bragg’s solo endeavors, the comp also pays attention to key collaborations. His work with the Smiths’ guitar muse Johnny Marr (“Sexuality” and “The Boy Done Good”) stands out as some of Bragg’s sharpest power pop. His work with do-no-wrong darlings Wilco and his own band, the Blokes (which includes Faces’ organist Ian McLagan) finds the Bragg of today with as many keen observations as ever. Most importantly, we can hear Bragg change from an angry young man to a wise old one. In that way … Paint You A Picture is capable of serving as both an introduction to Bragg’s seminal career and a refresher course on his enduring relevance. Jeannie, I hope you’re listening.
Billy Bragg will perform Tuesday, Nov. 11, at the Royal Oak Theater (318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak) with Steve Earle, Lester Chambers, and the Nightwatchman. For info, call 248-399-2980.
E-mail Nate Cavalieri at firstname.lastname@example.org.