Billy Bragg – Workers Playtime

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Sometimes you own an album just for one song, and while that is admittedly stupid, it is also unavoidable and, ultimately, a testament to the power of that one song. These things aren’t rational, they are emotional. Emotions don’t make sense, unfortunately. It is unfair to write off this album as just a vehicle for “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” as there are a few other good songs on here, but those numbers pale dramatically against “Leap,” and even compared to Bragg’s other material, are not quite up to par.

What I Think of This Album

This is an extremely subdued album, trading the loud guitar of Bragg’s early work for piano, and also exchanging passion for craft; for the first time, there are whole band arrangements surrounding the songs, and Bragg doesn’t seem to know how to make that transition.

So while “She’s Got a New Spell” boasts a nice 12-string part from perennial pal Wiggy, a pleasant melody, and some intriguing lyrics, it’s also fairly lightweight. Honestly, no Billy Bragg song should ever last more than two-and-a-half minutes, which tells you all you need to know about the organ-heavy, over five-minute-long ballad “Must I Paint You a Picture,” which gives a co-vocal to keyboardist Cara Tivey; it’s not a bad song, but it’s not a fun one. “The Price I Pay for Loving You” is again piano-driven, and a well-constructed mature love song, but it languishes at not even mid-tempo. “Little Time Bomb” is aurally similar, except for the horns (excellent) and some more audible guitar. “Rotting on Remand” likewise can’t get out of first gear, despite an excellently played piano and some tasteful pedal steel. “Life With the Lions” is the first song to show any spark, but again, is piano heavy (though, once more, Tivey does an outstanding job on the instrument). There is considerably beauty to the sad “The Only One,” with a somber cello and delicate guitar, but it only adds to the feel that this album is overly plaintive. Indeed, slower (yes, slower) numbers like the a capella “Tender Comrade” and the ivory-reliant “Valentine’s Day Is Over” really drag things down. There is true excellence on “The Short Answer,” which has brass and strings (including cello by Julia Palmer (Cinerama)), but predictably, is not a rocker.

The saving grace, making up for all these missteps and snoozers and leaving room to spare, is the unusually self-aware, self-deprecating, and ultimately affirming anthem “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” in which Bragg wittily explores his purpose and principles as an activist musician (“Mixing pop and politics / He asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment / And the usual excuses”). Starting out simply with guitar and piano, the song bursts into a robust, energetic band arrangement, complete with group backing vocals (including from Michelle Shocked). For the first time, Bragg sounds like he’s having a blast and when he shouts an unexpected Star Trek reference (“Beam me up, Scotty”), it’s like he’s been liberated from the shackles of whatever he was trying to prove on the previous ten tracks.

The Best Thing About This Album

Oh, it’s not even close this time. “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” is a top five Bragg song. Live, it is amazing.

Release Date

September, 1988

The Cover Art

Not good. The yellow is awful, and the individual text boxes at the top are difficult to navigate. The main image is too small and cluttered to be appreciated. The font of the album title is good, as is the clever Soviet-style logo. That bottom third of the cover should have been the entire cover, with a different color background.

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