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Protest singer Billy Bragg has a love-hate relationship with the immediacy of the Internet

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For a musician who's spent three decades telling people precisely what he thinks, Billy Bragg is espousing a surprising new mission statement.

"No one knows nothing any more. Nobody really knows the score," the British singer-songwriter declares a few songs into Tooth & Nail, his first album in five years. "Seems nobody knows anything. Let's break it down and start again."

Bragg, 55, is not the sort of person you'd expect to grapple with philosophical uncertainty, never mind the Zen-like tenets of constructivist epistemology. Since the early 1980s, when he rose to prominence as one of the English-speaking world's pre-eminent protest singers, certainty has been a hallmark of his compositions.

As the musical inheritor of both British punk-rock and American folk-music traditions, Bragg has made a career out of offering very specific messages to his fans and detractors alike. The irony of No One Knows Nothing Anymore, which references both the discovery of the Higgs boson and the fallibility of western economics, is that Bragg is continuing to send a very specific message, albeit one with the notable absence of swagger you could define either as wisdom or the inevitable mellowing-out that comes with age.

The vast majority of Tooth & Nail, a rootsy and laid-back collection of introspective songs, is of a more personal and less polemical nature than casual fans, such as the mainstage audience at last summer's Winnipeg Folk Festival, might expect. To Bragg, this is a simple byproduct of being more selective about recording topical songs, especially in era when opinion is more ephemeral.

"My albums have always been predominantly love songs. If you look at my last album (2008's Mr. Love & Justice), the ratio between love songs and political songs is pretty similar," Bragg said last week during an interview from Los Angeles, a stop on the same tour that takes him to the Garrick Centre in Winnipeg on April 10.

At the start of his career, there was a danger a topical song would be dated by the time it appeared on record, he said, referring to an 1980s ditty about a mining strike that happened to be over before the release of the tune that would have immortalized it.

Now, Bragg tends to release topical compositions as free electronic downloads on his website. He's released five songs this way over the past five years, including Never Buy The Sun, penned in the midst of the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

"I wrote it on a Friday, debuted it live on Saturday, put a clip up on YouTube on a Sunday, recorded on a Monday, (it was) available for free on a Tuesday and Rupert Murdoch appeared before the Leveson Inquiry on the Thursday," he said.

"In the old days, I used to have to hang on to my anger until I made a record. Now, I can make a comment as things are happening, in real time. That means when I do make an album, the songs I have in my bag are songs with deeper emotions."

This is only part of the explanation behind the relaxed if not outright restrained sound of Tooth & Nail. The album, as Bragg has said often over the past few months, is something of a successor to the pair of Mermaid Avenue albums he recorded in the late 1990s with American rock band Wilco as part of an effort to sustain the musical legacy of Woody Guthrie, arguably the greatest U.S. folksinger of all time.

Bragg said he intended to follow up Mermaid Avenue with another Americana-tinged collection of songs, but was distracted by the rise of the far right in the U.K. That led to the singularly focused England, Half English, a 2002 album written as a response to the changing concept of what it meant to be English.

It took another decade, in California at the studio of alt-country singer-songwriter Joe Henry, for Bragg to immerse himself in another decidedly rootsy album.

"That space has always been there in my music, if you're willing to listen for it," he said.

At the same time, Bragg insists he is no less angry today than he was as a 20-something with something to prove. The main difference is the target of his disdain may in fact be internal.

"I've come to reason over the last few years that cynicism is the true enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place. Not conservatism, but cynicism. And worse than that -- our own cynicism," he opines, repeating a snippet of the speech he delivered at the folk festival last July.

As an avowedly left-of-centre songwriter, Bragg acknowledges the right in Britain no longer presents itself as an obvious target. Trying to discern what U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stands for is a far trickier task than reading the late Margaret Thatcher, who was unequivocal in her beliefs, Bragg offers.

Today's blurring of ideological lines would have been confusing to the 1980s version of Billy Bragg, he acknowledges. So would the technology that allows him to distribute political songs near-instantaneously.

Had he started out as a political songwriter today, the sometimes vicious nature of Internet feedback might have convinced him to take a factory job instead, he says.

"In the old days, you lived or died by the response of music journalists. You didn't get that instant response you get on Twitter. That's the double-edged sword," he said.

"It's been great the last couple of weeks, reading the positive response (to his performances and new album) on Twitter. But I know the next time I tweet something about the British National Party, the trolls will be back and I will have to deal with them."

At live performances, Bragg routinely refreshes his 1988 song Waiting for the Great Leap Forward with a few topical lyrics. The latest version of those stanzas includes the classic warning to any would-be Internet opinion-monger: don't feed the trolls.

"I have to be honest with you, I don't always follow my own advice," he said.

Even if Billy Bragg truly believes he knows nothing any more, the old protest singer still can't resist the temptation to share what's on his mind.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Concert Preview

Billy Bragg

óè April 10, 8 p.m.

óè Garrick Centre

óè Tickets $40.25 including fees at Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 C9

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