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Billy Bragg - Tooth and Nail

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Artist: Billy Bragg

Album: Tooth and Nail

Label: Cookin' Vinyl

Review date: Mar. 13, 2013

A year or so ago, during one of our many manufactured government “crises” – I think it was the first debt ceiling fight – I stumbled onto Billy Bragg’s “Ideology” and found in it an almost perfect encapsulation of everything that’s gone wrong with Western democracy. “When one voice rules the nation, just because they’re top of the pile,” Bragg sang, a good three decades before Occupy took over Zuccotti Park. “Our politicians all become careerists. / They must declare their interests / but not their company cars. / Is there more to a seat in parliament / than sitting on your arse?” he continued, a full generation ahead of Tea Party gridlock. “Ideology” comes from what is maybe Billy Bragg’s best album, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, and if you are looking for a model on how to slide acerbic political commentary into proletariat love songs, it is not a bad place to start.

Of course, a lot of water has gone over the dam since then, and while still politically active, Billy Bragg is no longer manning the barricades. (He has been pretty vocal, in interviews, about the need for a younger generation of artists and musicians to engage with politics and social justice.) Tooth and Nail is Bragg’s first album in five years, and like Love & Justice, which preceded it, this grapples more with personal, emotional scenarios than world politics. The CD, recorded with Joe Henry in a sepia-toned palette of Americana tones, is more country and confessional than Bragg’s best rabble-rousers. It errs occasionally on the side of tastefulness and maturity – you can easily imagine it playing at Starbucks – but still contains a good bit of Bragg’s spunky, rebellious intelligence.

Tooth and Nail is laid back, delivered in the casual porch-blues idiom of alt-country and populated by down-home sounds like acoustic and pedal steel guitar, road house piano and brush-shuffling percussion. Bragg, too, sounds relaxed and sure of himself, his singing more melodic and less brash than in his heyday. He seems to revel in his lines, pausing to savor them rather than rushing on to the next. The words, too, are simpler, more work-a-day, less stridently clever than in the old days. You can even catch Bragg quoting the New Testament in the lackadaisical “Do Unto Others,” and remember, this is a guy whose best-known cover is of “The Internationale.” It’s all very soft and comfortable, musically speaking, like an old couch you can’t get out of. If you didn’t know Bragg as an ex-punk rocker (he once tweaked the mid-1980s Clash for having dropped the “L” from their name), you’d never make the connection from this material.

Lots of formerly angry young men mellow, of course, and more than a few of them take up country in their later years (Michael Gira, Jon Langford, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, etc., etc., etc.). Like the best of them, Bragg has turned down the urgency, but maintained a good bit of his edge, his intelligence and his sense of commitment. You can hear it best on three songs from Tooth and Nail, “Handyman’s Blues,” “There Will Be a Reckoning” and the lone cover, Woodie Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

“Handyman’s Blues” is the first single, an acoustic blues litany of Bragg’s domestic failings, his inability to change a fuse or put up a curtain rod, as well as a comfortable plea for understanding. It’s one of those long-term relationship love songs that only artists of a certain age can pull off, but it’s also as clever as Bragg can be. Says Bragg, “I’m not any good at pottery, so let’s just lose a ‘t’ and shift back the ‘e,’” and just while you’re doing the rebus puzzle, he produces the answer in the next line, “I’ll find a way to let poetry build a roof over my head.” That reminded me, in its sly intelligence, of the great skewed love song “Marriage,” also from Taxman, where, from other end of commitment, Bragg hazards, “Love is just a moment of giving / and marriage is admitting that our parents were right.”

“Handyman’s Blues” is smart but slight, but the two other songs dig deeper. Bragg’s reading of “I Ain’t Got No Home,” from the last global depression, is spare and hard-felt. It’s a declaration of solidarity with the poor and displaced, just as Guthrie’s original was, and just like that earlier reading, it works through empathy rather than sympathy. The only shame is that the song is still so relevant many decades after it was written.

The best song, by far, though is “There Will be a Reckoning,” a driving, rocking, urgent rocker that stomps through the same blighted landscape Bragg sang about in “Ideology.” Yet, while the darkness, the hopelessness, the closed down horizons are all palpable, Bragg, ever the agitator, still puts his money on the working man. It’s the beaten-down prole who speaks through Bragg’s cracked tenor, saying, “If you keep this pressure on just don’t be surprised, if I can’t summon up my dignity while you’re roughing up my pride.” It’s the kind of song that reminds you that the struggle is ongoing and important and not without hope, that people are standing up to the forces that rule us all the time, with varying results, and that even if you can no longer man the front lines, you can support from behind.

By Jennifer Kelly

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