Picks and Pans Review: The Internationale

updated 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Billy Bragg

No one can accuse Bragg of being a conformist.

In the early '80s he became one of the few British punk rockers to perform with no band. Standing on London subway platforms, he cranked up his guitar amp and made enough din to drown out everything. To keep consumers' costs down, he printed a maximum price on his album jackets. Most of all, his lyrics broke the rules. Instead of typical punk rants, he screamed poetic lines about love, politics and the plight of working people.

Today, singing quietly with acoustic guitars, orchestral instruments or even a chorus, Bragg still breaks more rules than any screaming punker.

For one thing, his constant activism to support political causes—the Labour party, AIDS activism—may scare away potential fans of his excellent pop music. Even devout liberals have been known to nod off during Bragg's earnest between-song speeches, and as a bright guy, he must know it. So what does he do? He fills his seventh U.S. release with seven of the most political songs ever written. Take that, you cynics!

Bragg's defiant spirit and enthusiasm are admirable, but something else makes this project a success: the music. Like a good history lesson, the album puts new life into some now-obscure popular classics of the past two centuries.

Bragg offers, for example, a rousing rendition of "The Internationale," written by a French factory worker in 1888 and adopted (until 1943) as the Soviet national anthem. At the suggestion of Pete Seeger, Bragg wrote new English lyrics to replace the outdated original words. He came up with a humanitarian message that recreates the spirit of the students who sang the anthem at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Bragg also rewrote the lyrics to "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night." The song now tells the story of his idol Phil Ochs, the American political folksinger who died in 1976. From his rendition of Carlos Mejia Godoy's "Nicaragua Nicaraguita" to the antiwar "My Youngest Son Came Home Today," Bragg covers enough political ground to thrill leftie followers.

One thing is sure: Bragg released this record out of love, not to make money. These days, that makes Bragg at least a curiosity and maybe a sort of hero. (Elektra)

From Our Partners