"Englishness is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past"
Billy Bragg had not recorded a studio album of his own material since 1996's William Bloke, and then along came England, Half English in 2002. The title of the album is an adaptation of George Orwell's phrase England, Your England. Those who follow Billy Bragg's appearances in the media will already know that The Bard of Barking's current cause célèbre is Englishness.
Bragg is fascinated with what it means "to be an Anglo hyphen Saxon in England.co.uk". He is intrigued by the negative connotations attached to English Nationalism. Why is it all right for a Scot to be patriotic, and not an Englishman? Bragg's quest is to reclaim patriotism from the ranks of the far right, and turn it into something friendly.
The timing of the release of the new album is perfect. 2002 is a year where, in Britain at least, nationalism seems to be sweeping the country. This summer sees The Queen's Golden Jubilee, as well as The World Cup. Shop windows are full of Union Flags and the St George's Cross. Bragg wants to explore the relationship between the two.
- Saint Monday is an upbeat track which had many live airings before the release of the album. It is reminiscent of earlier songs such as Upfield. The subject matter concerns workers in the dark satanic mills of yesteryear who were miffed at what little time off work they had. They created Saint Monday as a Saint's Day, in order to be granted more free time.
- Jane Allen is far from a typical Bragg song. It seems that the eponymous temptress tried to get Billy to stray from his life partner Juliet. Bragg, being the ideological man he is, of course refused to cheat.
- Distant Shore is a wistful track written from the point of view of an asylum seeker arriving in England. It is refreshing to hear a sympathetic stand point on this very contemporary issue. It seems to me that Bragg's ode to the refugee is in direct response to the UK politicians who capitalize on the public's fear of the unknown by referring to the "waves" of asylum seekers currently "flooding" or "swamping" Britain.
- England, Half English could easily have been written by Ian Dury a few years ago. This, more so than any song of recent times, examines what it really means to be English in this day and age. The mood of the track is light, and yet the message put forward is a serious one. Lines like "I'm a great big bundle of culture tied up in the red white and blue" summarise what Bragg feels about the multicultural England of 2002. He revels in it.
- NPWA stands for No Power without Accountability. This is a song in which Billy expresses his well-known opinions on the political situation in Britain. An attack on globalization as well as voter apathy, NPWA sees the return of Billy Bragg, the angry young man.
- Some Days I See The Point is a melancholic reflection on life in 21st Century Britain. It seems that Bragg, since his move to the sea side a few years ago, has shown an interest in getting back to Nature (one might say getting Back To Basics). He is worried that he may be losing some of his fervent, youthful, ideological optimism. When he feels the wind blowing in his hair, however, he sees the point of continuing the struggle. He's not turning from Red To Blue in a hurry.
- Baby Faroukh is a children's song in the tradition of Billy's hero Woody Guthrie. The fact that the child's name is anything but English was merely chance, claims Bragg. However, it ensures that the song is another celebration of multiculturalism.
- Take Down The Union Jack was released as a single to coincide with the Queen's Golden Jubilee in June 2002. It also provided Billy with his first invite to perform on Top of the pops in eleven years.
- Another Kind Of Judy sounds like something off Don't Try This At Home. It is a love song of sorts. Of course, it still shows Bragg's gift for finding a good turn of phrase (eg. "She took me down to the Cherry Tree / She drank me back to puberty")
- He'll Go Down is, presumably, an ode to a man he knows. Perhaps he is reflecting on someone who poses a threat to his relationship with Juliet. Who knows? The lyrics are rather scathing, whilst the tune is gentle.
- Dreadbelly is perhaps the most obscurely-lyriced on the album. Again the influence of the late Ian Dury is evident. The song throws up some unusual images, such as "Horses, hounds and humans all sitting on an underground train". Possibly an attack on fox hunting, possibly a nonsense verse.
- The Tears Of My Tracks sees Bragg dabbling with the blues. This is a muso's song. It tells of the overwhelming sadness a man feels upon selling his record collection. Billy says that he was inspired to write this song upon seeing an entire record collection up for sale at a car boot sale. The fact that the owner's name was written on the cover of each sleeve really affected him.
Musically, this album is quite adventurous. Perhaps it is The Blokes, Bragg's band, who encouraged the dabbling in world music. The electric guitar has taken a back seat and been replaced by the contra-tambura, the darabouka and the lap steel guitar. Having said that, when Billy performs these songs live, he sometimes returns to that much-loved format of one man and a guitar which has been his trademark in the past.