Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail
Billy Bragg’s first studio album since 2008’s Mr Love & Justice – and his 13th in total – presents a very laidback, mellow side of the activist and singer.
Recorded in South Pasadena, California by producer Joe Henry, these 12 songs, much like his collaborations with Wilco in 1998 and 2000, are infused heavily with Americana and country influences.
While those Mermaid Avenue records consisted of Bragg setting previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, here there’s only one cover – a lilting, gentle take on I Ain’t Got No Home, which was originally popularised by Guthrie himself.
A sadly prescient tale of a wandering worker struggling to survive in a rich man’s world, Bragg’s take on the song is appropriately dejected and desolate, and it’s easy to imagine him lost in the vast and dusty deserts of the American southwest.
But the setting of these songs is much closer to home – a not-so-new England poisoned by corporate greed and political corruption. “This,” Bragg declares on opener January Song, “is how the end begins.”
What follows is a simultaneous snapshot and critique of modern life: the mellow rage that pervades the countrified defiance of Handyman Blues; the hopeful optimism – replete with whistling solo – of Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day; and, most tellingly, There Will Be a Reckoning’s powerful rallying cry against “the politicians who led us to this fate”.
But Bragg also assumes the role of the broken, both in the despondency of Swallow My Pride and the mournful farewell of Goodbye, Goodbye.
To say that this is Bragg’s Nebraska is not entirely true, but these songs share with that album its numb desperation, its downtrodden narratives and its musical heritage.
That heritage might mean that he sounds less English than usual, but this is still a quintessential Billy Bragg album. Through its songs he conveys truths about this country in a way that few other English songwriters, if any, are able to do.