BILLY BRAGG Must I Paint You A Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg (Outside) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Listening to the recorded high- lights of Billy Bragg's 20-year solo career documented on the revealing two-disc retrospective Must I Paint You A Picture?, what's immediately striking is just how many poignant love songs Bragg's delivered in between the finger-pointing political rants for which he's best known. There's The Milkman Of Human Kindness, St. Swithin's Day, Greetings To The New Brunette, She's Got A New Spell and on and on.
And it wasn't a matter of Bragg purposefully tipping the balance toward the tunes dealing with affairs of the heart to paint a more flattering picture of himself. Always the socialist, Bragg left the song selection up to the people. Anyone visiting his Web site (www.billybragg.co.uk) to check for tour dates or download his take on the Iraqi invasion, The Price Of Oil, could vote for their favourite songs for inclusion on this compilation.
However, Bragg did use his executive powers to ditch some of the suggestions ("There were a few titles that I didn't even recognize I'd written," he roars), and then added a couple the fans overlooked.
"It's true that I did sort of slip in a few," Bragg confesses, "but no more than three tracks. I felt I had a bit of craftsman's knowledge I could use, and I had to be conscious of the songs that people shout requests for and those that always get a good reaction from the audience.
"A significant number of people have told me they've had The Fourteenth Of February played at their wedding. It's a song I wrote about how I met me missus a long time before we got together. I needed to factor in things like that."
Initial copies of the 40-track Must I Paint You A Picture? set come packaged with a limited bonus disc of choice rarities, including his stomping cover of the Three Degrees' disco smash When Will I See You Again? and a duet with Ted Hawkins on Cold And Bitter Tears. Those two soul numbers taken with the Four Tops shout-out implicit in his stirring Levi Stubbs' Tears, tend to suggest that the R&B influence on Bragg's aesthetic could run deeper than anyone might've guessed.
"I didn't grow up in a very political household. In fact, I don't recall ever discussing politics at home. As I think back, what caused me to consider politics was hearing the soul ballads of the civil rights era. The first music I ever owned was the Tamla/Motown Chartbusters Volumes 3, 4 and 5, which I taped from the sister of a mate who lived around the corner.
"There, between the Supremes' Stoned Love and the Four Tops' Still Waters Run Deep, was Smokey Robinson singing Abraham, Martin And John - a simple song with a very powerful message - which hit me square on when I was 12.
"I delivered the newspapers that carried the front-page story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder the morning after he was killed. So that music really struck a chord in my life. It's only been in the last couple of weeks that I've come to appreciate the significance of those Chartbusters records."
Who knew? Certainly not Paul Weller, who was taken aback when he heard Bragg giving a new composition, Levi Stubbs' Tears, a test run during a sound check before a Style Council gig. Recalling the modfather's confusion still gives Bragg a chuckle.
"When I finished, Weller came by, saying, 'Was that Levi Stubbs you were singing about?'
"'Yeah,' I said.
"'Levi Stubbs, the singer of the Four Tops?' he asked.
"'Soul music, then?' he said.
"'Yeah, Paul, soul music. '
"He looked puzzled and said, 'But I thought you were into the folk thing....'
"'Well,' I replied, 'we're all soul boys at heart, mate!'"