Billy Bragg hasn’t given up on the idea of singing to change the world, but he approaches it in a more general, philosophical way.
Billy Bragg has said that his new LP Tooth & Nail stemmed from someone pointing out to him that he writes about love as much as politics. It’s always been true that he writes as well about love as he does politics, often better. Many of his most powerful songs are about unrequited love – “A New England” (specifically about not wanting to change the world), “Greetings to the New Brunette”, “Must I Paint You a Picture”. In that last song he sings the great line, “Most important decisions in life / Are made between two people in bed / I found that out at my expense”, a reminder that in Bragg’s songs sex and politics often go hand in hand.
He’s been a great poet of protest and of the bittersweet nature of lust. Love and sex do figure into Tooth and Nail, but generally in a kinder, sweeter, less anxious way. If in the past, love tended to go unrequited, here with some notable exceptions it tends to be fulfilled, or even just a fact of life. Even when he sings a breakup song, “Swallow My Pride”, it's also a song of human motivation and making things better, not just an expression of pain. “Chasing Rainbows”, too, is a song of struggle that’s also one of reassurance. There's a lightness to it that suggests a movie musical. A lot of these are love songs, but also songs of comfort. Love on this album might be a challenge, but it doesn’t feel as destined to end in disappointment as it did in the past.
Bragg has also framed the album as his personal sequel to the Mermaid Avenue albums, where he and Wilco put unsung Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. That seems overtly part of his agenda when he sings Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got Home”, but also in the vaguely countryish touches (bountiful acoustic guitar, tasteful steel guitar, etc.) that Bragg, his band and producer Joe Henry (no stranger to sophisticated countryish pop music) give the songs. As an album, it’s hard to relate this too strongly to Guthrie, though. Bragg hasn’t given up on the idea of singing to change the world, but he approaches it in a more general, philosophical way, like by singing about the Golden Rule (“Do Unto to Others”), expressing hope in the face of apocalypse-prophets (“Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day”) and telling hate-filled politicians their time is up (“There Will Be a Reckoning”).
The songs have little of Guthrie’s fire and feel overall more sedate than about any music Guthrie made. That’s not a problem with the album, though. Bragg wears comfort well. The tone of Tooth and Nail, lyrically and musically, is “mature” and “sophisticated” in a way that stops short of dull and ends up feeling pleasantly familiar, like reuniting with an old friend.
Ease is one overriding characteristic here, and perhaps of later Bragg music in general. What this album has over 2008’s Mr. Love and Justice and 2002’s England, Half English, though, is a back-to-basics mentality that seems to keep Bragg grounded in the words and melodies, focused on making each phrase impactful. Even in a somewhat jokey song like “Handyman Blues”, there is a lot of careful cleverness at work. And occasionally Bragg attains a brilliance that justifies the acclaim the album’s approach will no doubt get – especially on “Your Name on My Tongue”, the longest song on the album. Its length, close to five minutes, is part of what helps Bragg conjure up those old feelings of longing and desire so vividly. There’s the same old sense of urgency and commitment, but something else – confidence, certainty, peace of mind. It's also a gorgeous song, prettier than just about anything in his repertoire.