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  England, Half English  
  Billy Bragg and the Blokes  
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A few months ago, my brother-in-law and I spent an hour passing the time on MARTA discussing the Aging Mechanics of rock stars. It sounds like an odd thing to do, perhaps, but the conversation was actually pretty much on-topic for the evening. We were on our way down to Phillips Arena at the time, headed to a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young show, although to be perfectly honest the two of us, like most of that night’s concert-goers of our age, were really going to see a Neil Young show at which Crosby, Stills, and Nash were also in attendance.

So, on the way down, we start discussing Neil Young, and how he’s the only member of the performance that night that didn’t get “rock star old”. Getting “rock star old” means, generally, being a once-relevant (or at least semi-relevant) performer in the American pop-rock universe who has aged far beyond relevance or the ability to carry on a rock-n-roll lifestyle yet who still tours and releases “new” material in order to suck as much dosh out of a similarly aged fan base as humanly possible. The Eagles are the Platonic form of “rock star old”. The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith are right up there with them, as are David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash.

But not Neil Young.

And there in lies the crux of the conversation. We were wondering how certain artists maintain that level of je ne c’est quoi while the rest erode into meaninglessness and vampiric half-lives. We came to the soft conclusion that there must exist a level of performer one step above “rock star”, in the American pop psyche, a level of being within that world as far above Pearl Jam or Creed or whatever your notion of “rock star” is as those bands are above Blink 182 and the like. We dubbed this super-class of artistic existence “icon” (yes, we know that certain elements of this terminology is already in use, but we’re talking about meaningful use here.)

And we decided that Neil Young was an icon, a true icon in our new terminologies, while Crosby, Stills, and Nash, not to mention Jagger, Tyler, and Henley were merely rock-n-roll’s own sick version of the unholy undead.

We then started talking about who else would be an icon, and who wouldn’t. The only name we could agree on was Springsteen (and I made a bit of a fuss about that one.) We thought about the Madonnas and Elton Johns of the world, but they were tossed out rather quickly. We decided that you can’t be an icon in our use of the word if you’re dead so Hendrix, et al were summarily discarded. (No, I’m not convinced a Jimi that survived would not be pelting poor ears everywhere with Steve Vai-esque claptrap.) We were left with the lonely two, in fact. Then we went and watched the show.

I mention all of this because I want to think of Billy Bragg as an icon. I want to think he represents bodily the very spirit of anti-folk and politicized music that doesn’t suck. And I want everyone else to agree with me. Unfortunately, they don’t always do that. And to complicate matters, Billy keeps releasing albums that, while not uniquely bad, don’t further his stature in my desired eschatological hierarchies.

1996’s William Bloke, for instance. And to a lesser extent, this year’s England Half-English. Now, I like both of those albums well enough, but when compared to Back to Basics or Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, they’re both found lacking in some ephemeral something or other. The songs on England Half-English, for example, are pretty solid, and they’re all clear examples of an artist continuing to evolve and create after 30. But they’re all missing something, all the same. I like Half-English, the song, and sing along to it all the time, as I do with the album’s opener, St. Monday. And I really like Take Down the Union Jack from both an aesthetic and political standpoint, but in the end everything always gets compared to a song like Ideologies or Which Side Are You On, or but for the grace of God, Greetings to the New Brunette, and they all fail on some level when those comparisons get made.

And this is the burden of the proto-Iconic, I suppose. To continue producing new material despite the weight of your own back catalogue must be an ever-daunting task, and it undoubtedly requires a staunch willingness to expand and move away from the well-known (those staccato, near-militant chord strikes from early Bragg songs) and into something else entirely (the Hammond organs Bragg has picked up from his Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Wilco.) And it will inevitably involve false steps along the way.

While England Half-English isn’t a misstep, per se, it is also not the firm-footed offering we’d expect from a near-Icon making his way on up the mountain. Though, in fairness, it might tell us something about the overall quality of an artist that his pseudo-missteps are themselves worth at least looking over for signs of greatness.

In the end, I think Bragg will find his way through and clear and regain his rightful place as the spokesman of the real left, as well as the place of a great song-writer who manages to capture the everyday in songs about strike law policy. In the end, I think he’ll be the Icon I want him to be. After all, even Neil Young had Trans. In the meantime, I and his many fans will simply bide our time, supporting releases like England Half-English while keeping Back to Basics always near-to-hand of the CD changer. And that’s enough for me.

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