Billy Bragg's slashing stridency and plain old passion seem like an ideal pill for fearful and politically frustrating times such as these. In the early 1980s, with his lonely Stratocaster and sometimes guileless Cockney wobble, the British neo-folkie transcended his acute Anglocentrism with anger, melancholy and whimsy, all as literate and palpable as Dylan's or Strummer's.
The first disc of the three-disc Bragg retrospective Must I Paint You a Picture? The Essential Billy Bragg focuses on -- to put it in Dylanological terms -- Bragg's pre-electric period. Yet it's hardly the one long song that often characterizes orthodox folk. Instead, there's the spectacle of the proletarian anthem "To Have and To Have Not" back-to-back with the unclassifiable pun-epic "The Milkman of Human Kindness." And while some hard-core fans of Bragg's "one-man Clash" political songs might knock a love ballad like the Kirsty MacColl duet "Greetings to the New Brunette," there's no arguing with sterling couplets like this one: "Here we are in our Summer years, living on ice cream and chocolate kisses/Would the leaves fall from the trees if I was your old man and you was my missus?"
It's that kind of transporting romantic spirit that settles into Bragg's work with the addition of the full band. The bulk of the second disc is one kind of love song or another, from Smiths-like drama without the fatalism, backed by the maestro Smith himself, Johnny Marr; to mythic rumblers that, against all likelihood, manage to embrace psychedelia without losing Bragg's major-key strut; and Woody Guthrie-penned paeans to Ingrid Bergman and Flying Saucers, from the Mermaid Avenue Guthrie tribute sessions.
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Even Bragg's sex is political ("I've had relations with women of all nations"), and for any listener who feels a little stuffed by the anti-imperialist "Take Down the Union Jack," the pots 'n' pans and odds 'n' ends smattered on the third "bonus disc" is a well-earned stroll. Live and airily produced, those 10 tracks present the frank immediacy of Bragg's vocal instrument on colorfully chosen disco, soul and rock covers. Like the legends whose torch he's carried, it turns out that Bragg's apparent impediments also stand as gifts.