Billy Bragg took a five-year break from recording (and became a parent for the first time) after releasing 1991's Don't Try This at Home, but William Bloke suggests he still wasn't ready to get back to work when he returned to the studio. William Bloke was Bragg's sparest and most musically concise album since Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, and beyond the upbeat and horn-fueled "Upfield" and the loopy ska of the set closer, "Goalhanger," most of the songs feature little besides Billy's voice and guitar (or in the case of "Everybody Loves You Babe," Billy's voice and a piano). More striking, however, is the downbeat tone of the album; from the philosophical uncertainty of "From Red to Blue," the loss of innocence of "The Space Race Is Over," and the crumbling relationship of "Brickbat," William Bloke sounds like the work of a man somewhat overwhelmed by the world around him and not sure what to do about it -- which is not the way Billy Bragg usually sounds. While the piss-and-vinegar adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "A Pict Song" and the cheerful wrath of "Goalhanger" indicate the old Billy wasn't gone for good, there's a lingering air of defeat and dashed hopes that permeates William Bloke, and the songs lack the generosity and rabble-rousing brio of his best work. Bragg would rally two years later with his excellent adaptation of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics, Mermaid Avenue, but William Bloke is the work of a man stuck in a creative rut, and while there are still things worth hearing here, they're outnumbered by songs that speak more of Bragg's personal disappointments than his muse.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming