Social activist, folklorist, singer, songwriter -- Billy Bragg has spent the last two decades following the path laid by his heroes Woody Guthrie
and Bob Dylan
, with a punk-inspired ethic that's continued to this day. The past three years found him immersed Guthrie's work, as he and the band Wilco composed two albums of songs around the folk giant's lyrics, the Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue
and Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2
. With England, Half English
, Bragg returns to the concerns of his home country in the here and now, dissecting national politics ("NPWA," "Take Down the Union Jack"), championing working folk ("St. Monday"), meditating on the changing makeup of England (the title track, "Baby Faroukh"), and -- of course -- singing some love songs ("Jane Allen," "Another Kind of Judy"). Musically, the formerly solo guitar strummer carries on the band concept of Mermaid Avenue
, backed by his touring band the Blokes, which includes members of the Mekons, Shriekback, and the Pogues. The band toughen up his sound: "NPWA" has a surprising funk-rock edge, "St. Monday" is a bawdy, piano-inspired romp, and the humorous title track ("My breakfast was half English and so am I, you know," he boasts) weaves in a host of sounds from across the seas. But when Bragg couches his songs in simple, plaintive arrangements -- as in the organ-drenched soul nod "Tears of My Tracks" or the meditative, acoustic guitar-driven "Distant Shore" -- his inner fire burns brightest. Fans of this British bard's socially committed songwriting and heartfelt lyrics will find plenty to like about his latest, which is enhanced by a rockin' band format. He may be half English, but he's fully entertaining.