"Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is, I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses," sings Billy Bragg on his euphorius "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" from 1988's Workers Playtime. Mr Love & Justice returns with just as much political exaggeration, but not his usual punk rock - pop for the aging population of Bragg lovers. His fan base adopted an American influx of Woody Guthrie fans after Bragg's 1998 collaboration album Mermaid Avenue with Wilco. The influence of Guthrie aided Bragg in his early political years as an activist, but has only in the past decade taken its musical and structural influence on Bragg's music. From his furiously catchy rock anthems like "The Milkmen of Human Kindness" and "A New England", to the spellbinding grit of "All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose" and "There Is Power In A Union", Bragg proves that he can do it all. Be it a cover or a Bragg original, he's still got it, and his ninth solo album Tooth & Nail is his life’s work.
Tooth & Nail is catering for an American audience and Bragg's ear-catching lyrics on opening track "January Song" sets this up: "Politicians selling freedom, bumper sticker 50 cents. Asking what they want to be free from, answer don't make any sense!" He hasn't dropped his British twang, or lost sight of his 80s roots, but Bragg has moved on from Thatcher’s era. Current affairs is Bragg's strong point, he seems to have a knack for writing a song for the moment that lives on. "No One Knows Nothing Anymore" sees Bragg direct a question and the answer to Britain’s banking elite: "Let's stop pretending we can manage our way out of here. Let's stop defending the indefensible. Let's stop relying on the lecturing of the experts, whose spin just makes our plight incomprehensible." This lyric is almost lost within the spiralling chorus and the scientific nod to Switzerland's Large Hadron Collider.
It's not the stripped back instrumentals or slide guitar that take focus on Bragg's acoustic direction; it's the lyrical delivery he's grown to master. Bragg knows he doesn’t have a voice relevant for XFactor, or the youth of a boy group. He has his audience and plays to that with good song-writing. "Handyman Blues" is exactly what the lyric-loving Bragg appreciators are looking for. He sings: "Don't be expecting me to put up shelves. Or build the garden shed, but I can write a song that tells the world, how much I love you instead! I'm not any good at pottery, so let's lose a "T", and shift back to "E". And I'll find a way to make my poetry, build a roof over our head." Ending the short but sweet track with an outro worthy of reckoning: "I know it looks like I'm just reading the paper, but these ideas will turn to gold dust later. Cause I'm a writer, not a decorator, I'm not your handyman!"
Bragg covers Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home" on the fourth track. He follows Beck, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and in covering one of Guthrie's best songs. He makes the diamond anniversary song sound modern, which of course it is. And the album continues on this path, never stopping to work out a time period. "Swallow My Pride", "Do Unto Others", "Chasing Rainbows", are cheery album tracks with a heartfelt focus at their centre, much like the album in general. Especially "Do Unto Others" which is a lovely ethical track quoting the bible, not in a pro-religious way, as Bragg pretty much disregards the Adam & Eve story as he says in the song, but quoting the bible's golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
There are areas of personal lyrics on Tooth & Nail, not your average Billy Bragg soppy love tracks, but the sad and slow "Goodbye Goodbye" and "Over You", both tell a story just by the titles. It's not these tracks that standout on Tooth & Nail, nor the Guthrie cover or his brilliantly written: "I'm not any good at pottery, so let's lose a "T", and shift back to "E". Instead when Bragg's full band come into action on the track "There Will Be A Reckoning" is where Tooth & Nail finds its heart. The following tracks are build-ups with Bragg's band taking control of Tooth & Nail with pianos, hard hitting reverberated drums and secondary guitar.
It ends with "Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day", Bragg's song against cynicism. It dates back three years and finds its place nicely at the back end of Tooth & Nail. Listeners couldn’t ask for a better closer than this, an inspiring track with hope for our world. Bragg's toned down instrumental helps the listener feel his words at an intimate level, as Bragg drops to the lowest form of recorded music, whistling, though it's allowed in this case.
Tooth & Nail isn't at all ground-breaking or shocking, it's Bragg fitting into his role as a post-middle age punk with poetry and writing at his fingertips rather than a pickaxe. It's always been a guitar or a pen in Bragg's hands and he's following his life through with an album of toned down socialism on a global scale, rather than his usual anti-right wing songs seen on previous solo albums. Bragg doesn’t release many solo albums these days and it’s a joy to finally listen to a Bragg album that's American influenced while keeping his listeners back home satisfied.