Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Billy Bragg & Wilco [extended]

  • Brewing Up With Billy Bragg [CD, 1984] B-
  • Talking With the Taxman About Poetry [Elektra, 1986] B+
  • Help Save the Youth of America: Live and Dubious [Elektra EP, 1988] B-
  • Workers Playtime [Elektra, 1988] B
  • The Internationale [Elektra, 1990] Dud
  • Don't Try This at Home [Elektra, 1991] Neither
  • A.M. [Sire/Reprise, 1995] ***
  • Being There [Reprise, 1996] B+
  • Mermaid Avenue [Elektra, 1998] A
  • Summerteeth [Reprise, 1999] **
  • Mermaid Avenue II [Elektra, 2000] A-
  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch, 2002] *
  • England, Half English [Elektra, 2002] Choice Cuts
  • A Ghost Is Born [Nonesuch, 2004] B-
  • Sky Blue Sky [Nonesuch, 2007] B+
  • Wilco (The Album) [Nonesuch, 2009] A-
  • The Whole Love [Anti-, 2011] ***
  • Star Wars [dBpm, 2015] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Billy Bragg: Brewing Up With Billy Bragg [CD, 1984]
Nice lad, always votes Labour, means well with the girls. So why does he subtitle this modest collection of songs-with-electric-guitar "a puckish satire on contemporary mores"? Some believe he's wiser than he knows. I suspect he's not as smart as he thinks he is. B-

Billy Bragg: Talking With the Taxman About Poetry [Elektra, 1986]
How could one deny such a fine young man, especially with his harsh guitar and gratifying piano or trumpet reflecting his Clashy lineage when one thinks about it? That depends on how much one resents having to think about it. The lyrics are another matter--they're made to be thought about. Only soon one realizes that the politics, his forte if not his raison d'Ítre, are surprisingly clunky. And that when it comes to the cons and pros of getting married he never misses a trick. B+

Billy Bragg: Help Save the Youth of America: Live and Dubious [Elektra EP, 1988]
It isn't music that makes Bragg so much fun live, so I'm not surprised that the songs are as flat here as in their studio versions--especially since some of them are studio versions. And live fun feeds on context, so I'm not surprised either that the stage patter translates poorly--especially since Bragg takes the task of translation so literally that he provides the Russian version of his remarks on the Moscow-recorded title tune. The video will no doubt feature somebody signing. B-

Billy Bragg: Workers Playtime [Elektra, 1988]
He's got a way with a tune and even some money. So maybe it's time to wonder why he has such big problems. Why are women always rejecting him? And why are the people always rejecting him? Not completely, of course--he's a modest success. But in both arenas he falls far short of his putative expectations, and I smell a reason in the barely concealed sob he can't get rid of. From unjust justice all the way to hopeless love, the catch in the throat is kind of seductive--until it starts to stink. This is the voice of a man who expects defeat--not only does he feel born to lose, but he doesn't have what it takes to throw a good wake. So why should the working class follow him to the crossroads? Why should Mary? B

Billy Bragg: The Internationale [Elektra, 1990] Dud

Billy Bragg: Don't Try This at Home [Elektra, 1991] Neither

Wilco: A.M. [Sire/Reprise, 1995]
realist defiance grinding sadly down into realist bathos ("Casino Queen," "Box Full of Letters") ***

Wilco: Being There [Reprise, 1996]
Is a two-CD package that could fit onto one conning consumers, taking on airs, or wallowing in nostalgia for a lost time when songs were songs and double albums were double albums? All three. Yet there's no point denying Jeff Tweedy's achievement as long as you recognize its insularity. His simple melodies, felt vocals, and easy stylistic sweep all evoke a past when roots music came naturally, from bluegrass to the Rolling Stones--a past he preserves by removing it to the privacy of his head and your sound system. There's no dynamism to his music--the rockers are slackers, the hooks essentially atmospheric. Yet as objects of contemplation both have their power and charm. B+

Mermaid Avenue [Elektra, 1998]
Here's this Brit folksinger, a punk by heritage and a pop star by ambition whose most salient talent is how guiltlessly he mixes up the three. And here's this middle-American alt band, folkies by sensibility and pop pros by ambition whose most salient talent is a musicality they don't know what to do with. With the wisdom of half a century's ripoffs behind them, both are more resourceful melodically than the icon whose thousands of unpublished lyrics they were chosen to make something of. So be glad he kept the tunes in his head. Because while the words are wonderful and unexpected--author of several published books and reams of journalism, Woody Guthrie might have made his mark in any literary calling--it's the music, especially Wilco's music, that transfigures the enterprise. Projecting the present back on the past in an attempt to make the past signify as future, they create an old-time rock and roll that never could have existed. Finally--folk-rock! A

Wilco: Summerteeth [Reprise, 1999]
Old-fashioned tunecraft lacking not pedal steel, who cares, but the concreteness modern popcraft eschews ("Summer Teeth," "She's a Jar"). **

Mermaid Avenue II [Elektra, 2000]
See: Folksinger, Wordslinger, Start Me a Song. A-

Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch, 2002]
purty music, but I yawn like a lawn when I hear him recite ("Jesus, Etc.," "I Am the Man Who Loves You") *

Billy Bragg and the Blokes: England, Half English [Elektra, 2002]
"England, Half English," "St. Monday" Choice Cuts

Wilco: A Ghost Is Born [Nonesuch, 2004]
Not counting the 11-minute synth drone that Jeff Tweedy says reminds him of his migraines, the most blatant of the mannerisms that riddle this privileged self-indulgence is its dynamic strategy. Play the soft parts loud enough to hear and the loud parts will demonstrate the limitations of your cheapjack sound system, you pathetic transistorized consumer clone. Fortunately, there is a counterstrategy. Play the soft parts as faintly as they deserve and you'll still be able to make out the guitar workouts that are the only conceivable attraction the album will hold for any neutral party not seeking an associate degree in sound engineering. Once Tweedy wrote legible songs. They didn't add up to much because he didn't, but they had their shallow charms. Here he's beyond such compromises. "Handshake Drugs" we get, and the NPR-ready one about the best songs not getting on the radio is a clever feint. But it's hard to imagine any of the suckers who fell for the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot hype striving to identify with, say, "Muzzle of Bees." Not impossible. Just hard. B-

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky [Nonesuch, 2007]
Though it's possible Jeff Tweedy's wife told him to stop being a pretentious tweet, it's more likely she just told him to stop ignoring her. This doesn't mean he actually was ignoring her, mind you. But too late he figured he'd better make a point of paying attention, which meant no more pretentious tweet (for the time being). On the second-best track here, he does the dishes and mows the lawn even though she's not around to appreciate it. On the best, he admits consumers have the right to think his music means whatever they want it to. Everywhere he stops soundscaping and resumes songwriting. B+

Wilco: Wilco (The Album) [Nonesuch, 2009]
"Come on children, you're acting like children/Every generation thinks it's the end of the world," begins the candidly catchy centerpiece of these lost-and-found tradsters' best album. Not a sentiment likely to flatter up-and-going bloggerati who consider "boring" an objective descriptive. But having come through his drugs-and-romance travails as well as the departure if not death of most of his original sextet, Jeff Tweedy doesn't give a tweet. He's as proud as he always should have been of the reliable songcraft and affable singing presupposed by the lead "Wilco (the song)," which promises "dabblers in depression" that "Wilco will love you." There's more existential acceptance than existential despair in the embattled "I'll Fight" and the enlightened "Deeper Down." But that just makes the ones about apocalypse and murder seem earned--"Bull Black Nova" is disturbing like nothing in their pomo phase ever was. A-

Wilco: The Whole Love [Anti-, 2011]
Full-on Radiohead electronica Americanized with aw-shucks diffidence, red-blooded guitar, sharp tunes, and exceptionally dull poetry ("Standing O," "One Sunday Morning") ***

Wilco: Star Wars [dBpm, 2015]
As hooked on sonics as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot--song sonics as opposed to electronic sonics or Americana sonics, and also as opposed to songs ("EKG," "Taste the Ceiling") ***

See Also