One of the appealing things about Billy Bragg, outside of the rebel rousing, political lyrics or the catchy, well crafted songs, has always been that he’s just one guy. One guy with a guitar, something to say and a handful of songs. These days he rolls around with a handful of talented musicians backing him up, but they just fill out the sound, you strip them away, and it’s still just Billy and his guitar. Just like it was in the beginning, like it is on ‘Back To Basics.’ In fact the deluxe edition of his 2008 album ‘Mr. Love & Justice’ came with a second CD featuring all the same songs but without the backup band, just Billy and his distorted rhythm maker. It’s arguably better than the album proper.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign of a solo set with the new batch of tunes that make up ‘Tooth & Nail.’ Which is too bad, I was looking forward to the possibility when I heard the record announced.
The album opener ‘January Song’ does start off in a decidedly bare bones way though, with Billy singing just above a whisper and softly strumming a guitar. A tambourine can barely be heard in the back holding down the percussion duties.
‘No One Knows Nothing Anymore’ is a little more filled out, instrument-wise, and incorporates everything from slide guitar to honky tonk-y piano. There’s a deceptively lot going on in the song and it creates a beautiful wall of folky sound with rallying, protest lyrics (as usual) and a soft, chewy melody.
‘Handyman Blues’ is a love song and every Billy Bragg record has a handful of them. They’re nice, reflective, laidback amblers with an easy hook and a great deal of sincerity. Though, come to think of it, I can’t think of too many examples when Bragg didn’t sound sincere.
‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ is about the rapidity of the times and Bragg feeling left out of it all. Seeing things pass him by which look less and less familiar and perhaps finding comfort in retreating back into himself, into what he knows best and is most at ease with, a simple life.
A couple songs later, ‘Do Unto Others’ is a song about the bible and the wisdom in its teachings, delivered with Sunday School simplicity. It’s a nice sounding, slow song with some more of that slide guitar and piano Bragg seems to be especially fond of on this record. It’s also a little boring and would probably work best as a song for kids at church, which may have been Billy’s intention all along, I don’t know.
‘Over You’ picks up the slack though, delivering a catchy country toe tapper that would sound great over the end credits of an episode of ‘Justified.’
‘There Will Be A Reckoning’ is a great song with a punchier beat and lyrics that could’ve been lifted from 1987’s ‘Back To Basics’ record, while ‘Your Name On My Tongue’ features some gorgeous guitar work and wonderful interaction between guitar and piano, wrapping the notes of their tongues around each other in an impressive French kiss (I don’t know, I’m running out of ways to describe things, alright?)
‘Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day’ is a nice way to end off a record, for reasons that the title of the song makes clear enough without my help.
Although every Billy Bragg record has had its soft spots since the very beginning, those songs have grown steadily more prominent on release of his that comes and goes. The punky, stripped down delivery and inventive distorted guitar work that defined his sound in the 80’s and at times even made him a dead ringer for Joe Strummer, has been replaced by a man and musician who, while I won’t go so far as to say is ‘wimping out,’ is at least shedding the more aggressive layers of the onion that is his sound. His lyrics are no less immediate or important to the things he feels passionate about and in many ways have actually changed very little in content or delivery over the years, they’re just delivered now with a softer touch. A caress rather than a slap, I guess.
‘Tooth & Nail’ is more a country record than a folk one. Something I think Billy wasn’t interested in leaving to interpretation considering the copious amounts of slide guitar and plinking and plunking ivory tickling. It’s not quite as good as ‘Mr. Love & Justice’ and I don’t know that anything he will do on his own will ever touch the stuff he did with Wilco, but current fans will eat it up and past ones will probably find some stuff to throw onto a playlist as well.
So does Billy Bragg even technically fall under the ‘folk punk’ banner these days? Technically, that is, musically, no, probably not. But in spirit, in message, in the hearts of many punks who have grown with him and never turned away, no matter the ever-growing ease of musical delivery, he will always be one of us. He just fits in nicely these days with those folk fest crowds as well. Hippies need a rally cry too.