Billy Bragg: The Roaring Forty (1983-2023) (Deluxe Edition) (Cooking Vinyl) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Billy Bragg

The Roaring Forty (1983-2023) (Deluxe Edition)

Cooking Vinyl

Dec 05, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


There are few artists whose career retrospective merits a 14 CD box set, featuring a staggering 300+ songs. Billy Bragg is one of those few. As the name of this release might suggest, The Roaring Forty spans four decades of recordings from the “Bard of Barking.” And it’s spellbinding.

It would have been easy to throw together a box set containing each of Billy Bragg’s 12 albums, wrap it in some nice artwork, and be done with it. But that’s not what we have here. The Roaring Forty is a highlights package of those dozen LPs, interspersed with non-album tracks, B-sides, previously unreleased material, live recordings, radio sessions, cover versions, and collaborations. On the latter note, “PF Sloan,” featuring Mike Mills and Peter Buck of R.E.M., is a highlight; the same being true of a poignant cover of The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work,” accompanied by KT Tunstall.

But where Bragg has always shone—whether in his songs of protest, politics, or (usually unrequited) love—is when he’s one man and a guitar, stripped to the bare bones and singing/chanting his heart out. This collection amply showcases starkly beautiful earlier songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “Accident Waiting to Happen,” which shine a light on the vulnerability, honesty, and integrity of one of Britain’s most valuable songwriters. As is apt for a collection that spans such a broad swathe of time, there’s also vein of maturity running through William Bloke-era tracks, such as “Brickbat”—“I steal a kiss from you in the supermarket/I walk you down the aisle, you fill my basket/And through it all, the stick I take is worth it for the love we make,” is middle-aged Bragg’s sharp, colloquial lyricism is at its keenest.

Yes, it’s impossible to adequately sum up the depth of material on these CDs in the space allowed here, but suffice to say that any box set that contains the era-defining “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” at the same time as “Full English Brexit” is worthy of attention. This is a document of one man’s mission to highlight the imperfections, inadequacies, and injustices of right-wing policies, tell the stories of ordinary folk, and give voice to the voiceless; it’s a volume of solidarity, both political and personal—something Billy Bragg will always be the standard bearer for.

Don’t want to commit to the full 14 CD set? The potted highlights of Bragg’s career are also available as shorter versions of The Roaring Forty on a single LP, three-disc LP, or two CD set. Any of these options would feel like a “greatest hits” compilation to fans but would serve as a decent introduction for newcomers. What the full deluxe edition represents is a vital collection for completists—as essential a body of work as the recorded output of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. (www.billybragg.co.uk)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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