Billy Bragg is a songwriter known to not pull any political punches when it comes to expressing his views through his music. It should come as no surprise then that on his new mini album Bridges Not Walls, Bragg sets his focus on topics like Donald Trump, the rise of right-wing nationalism, Brexit, xenophobia, and environmental catastrophe.
Bragg released three of the six songs on Bridges Not Walls as singles over the course of the last year. Five of the songs represent Bragg’s first new and original material since his 2013 album Tooth & Nail. A cover of Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall” rounds out the album.
The power of Billy Bragg’s music can be attributed in equal parts to his keen sense of melody and his directness in getting his point across. While Bragg is certainly a poet with a knack for stringing words together, he does not obscure his meaning in metaphor or deep symbolism, choosing instead to get straight to the point, often making sure to do so over an infectiously hummable melody. This synthesis is at the forefront of the album’s opening track, “The Sleep of Reason,” named after a Francisco Goya etching from the late 18th century titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The song deals with the all-too-pervasive presence of disinformation and lies in our society promoted by people pushing shady and hateful political agendas.
“In the end, the greatest threat faced by democracy,” Bragg sings on the track. “Isn’t fascism or fanaticism, but our own complacency.”
Billy Bragg applies this sentiment to the second track of Bridges Not Walls, “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood,” in which he laments at the beginning, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could save the world and all, simply by collecting up tin cans and empty bottles. We all want to believe it’s true, but it don’t matter what you do, as long as we continue to burn our way through fossils.” Bragg goes on to warn, “the oceans they connect us all, no one can just build a wall. We have to work together. We can’t do this on our own… and everyone’s a libertarian until the brown water floods their home.”
Bragg makes the idea of walls and what they represent a central focus of the songs that comprise Bridges Not Walls. On the track “Saffiyah Smiles,” Bragg evokes the famous image of Saffiyah Khan smiling in the face of a protestor from the far-right nationalist group English Defense League to launch a pointed attack against right-wing extremist protestors. On his official website, Billy Bragg explains what prompted him to write the song.
“Following the shocking scenes of white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville this past summer, my mind went back to an image of a young woman facing down a ranting fascist with nothing but a serene smile,” Bragg wrote. “Saffiyah Khan had been taking part in a counter-demonstration against the neo-fascist English Defence League in Birmingham, England, in April this year when she saw a woman being surrounded by taunting EDL supporters. Saira Zafar had been verbally opposing the racists and a number of them had left the demo to turn on her. When the police struggled to protect her, Saffiyah stepped up and got in the face of the loudest aggressor, holding him at bay with nothing more than a smile until police intervened. A press photographer captured the moment and the picture went viral… Saffiyah Khan’s selfless act of solidarity is an inspiration to us all and a reminder that sometimes you can confront hatred by calmly making plain how ridiculous its propagators are.”
Bridges Not Walls ends with a touching piano ballad titled “Full English Brexit” in which Bragg paints a rather sympathetic portrait of an English person lured into right-wing thinking in the face of a changing society. The song reminds us that despite the ugly ways in which these sentiments often manifest, underneath them is a deep anxiety propelled by fear of the unknown, and that to challenge these ideologies requires understanding.
Bridges Not Walls is a compelling return for Billy Bragg that should please his longtime fans while expanding his audience to others looking for artistic inspiration as they navigate the turbulent political waters of our time.
[Featured Image by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images]