Imagine you've been invited to a party where Billy Bragg and friends are going to perform. You show up, and are delighted to see the Englishman is truly there, playing all of his greatest hits. Once he's gone through the most popular numbers, the attendants of the party disperse but you and a few others stay behind, hoping to maybe get a word with Mr. Bragg. After talking for some time, the band starts up again and plays some of the more obscure and complicated of their songs. What a great night!
That's how I feel about 1988's Workers Playtime. The album starts with the radio-friendly, catchy pop of "She's Got a New Spell," wherein Bragg describes his fear of his lover's spellcasting ability. It's a wonderful pop gem where the normally sparse sound of Bragg+Guitar is augmented by a bass guitar, a capoed electric guitar, harmonizing vocals, and light percussion. After this track, this listener is then rewarded for sticking around with slower, quieter, and more intimate numbers. "Must I paint you a picture?" is a fantastic foil to "She's got a New Spell," a heartfelt plea backed by Cara Tivey on piano and vocals. Her perfectly-pitched mezzo-soprano expertly balances Bragg's tenor.
The rest of the album is like a gift for the patient listener. Bragg is at his best somewhere between the minimalist sound he employs on "Tender Comrade" and the full band backing on the Mermaid Avenue albums. Fortunately, that's where most of Workers Playtime resides. "The Only One" sees Bragg backed by solely violin accompaniment, while the side B opener "Valentine's Day is Over" and the aforementioned "Must I paint you a picture" make excellent use of a Piano and female backing vocals.
The themes explored here are familiar Billy Bragg: love songs and political protests. 20 years ago, we were in the twilight of the Reagan administration just as Bragg and his countrymen were nearing the final days of the Thatcher administration. The USSR was getting ready to tumble, and it was suddenly cool to consider the Soviets human beings. That said, it was still a pretty ballsy move at the time to name an album Workers Playtime, complete with a depiction of Communist Chinese workers on the cover. Of course, 20 years later, we know it's right in line with Billy Bragg's canon. His new album will be released here in the US in a few short weeks. While you're waiting, it's a great time to go check out a 20 year-old gift from him to you.