It’s hard to avoid seeing every song Billy Bragg writes as being somehow political. He’s spent so many years fighting the good fight, battling against the establishment, that he’s become an establishment himself built on straightforward political observations and grassroots activism. His legacy is tied so closely to his rendition of “There Is Power in a Union” and politically-driven anthems like “To Have and to Have Not” and “Ideology” that the other side of his oeuvre, his love songs, can sometimes get short shrift.
But there’s always been a meshing of the personal and the political in Bragg’s songs, and sometimes his pining ballads are as based in political outrage as his pro-union romps. And with his new album, Mr. Love & Justice, the 50-year-old Bragg wishes to push that meshing further, blurring the line between personal choice and political action.
The Billy Bragg of today has little in common romantically with the guy who once sang the cynical “The Marriage”, in which he equating getting married to “admitting that our parents were right”. These days, Bragg seems a little more content and more receptive to a long-term relationship. But what Young Billy and Old Billy would agree on is that inaction will kill love. “M for Me” is not only a typically clever Bragg tune, which finds him in the middle of a playful spelling game, but it is also a love song about being actively in love, about working everyday to keep your relationship going. Bragg wants to “take your problems, baby, and make them our problems now”. It’s a sweet moment in an album with plenty of them, and you can always hear Bragg singing to someone in particular, but the focus on action is hard to ignore. Along the same lines, “I Keep Faith” is not merely stating support but acting it out daily. And Bragg seems to imply that this level of agency, this decisive involvement in our own lives might translate into a more universal action.
Of course, this line of thought isn’t hurt by the overtly political songs on Mr. Love & Justice. “Sing Their Souls Back Home” wishes for the troops overseas to be sent back to their families. “O Freedom” asks, in Bragg’s trademark confrontational, straightforward language, at what cost we achieve personal and national freedom. There are other message songs on here, but all seem to lack the same thing: personality.
Older Bragg albums were full of caustic wit and self-deprecation, and that went a long way in making his preachy songs not just palatable but fantastic. But on the new album, Bragg comes head-on at what’s bugging him, but keeps the songs spare, so they come off as almost dry reportage. And when he does try cutting wit, on “The Johnny Carcinogenic Show”, it is not only misguided (Are smoking ads really a high priority on the must-stop list?) but it also misses the mark. On the rest of the album, his straight take on issues isn’t grating so much as it repeats what we already know. Bragg’s discography has given us a pretty clear look at Bragg’s vision of the world, and on this album we don’t get anything new about his politics. The love songs here are more effective, however, because they feel more personal and more directed than anything he’s done before.
But even the love songs fall flat in spots. “Something Happened” is a bland This is What Love Is song, and its simplicity is beneath Bragg’s talents, frankly. But luckily, disarming ballads like “You Make Me Brave” and “If You Ever Leave” — the two stand-out tracks on the album — make up for some of his transgressions.
It is good that Bragg has mellowed some in his old age. He’d weeded some of the punk out of his folk, and employed a more roots sound to his music. Mr. Love & Justice lacks the world music touches of England, Half English but still manages to achieve enough variety in its sound to avoid repetition. Bragg’s voice has also sweetened with age, and his songs are as tuneful as they always were. But Bragg is also old enough to know that just because the music has slowed down, doesn’t mean it should stop challenging us. And while some of this album finds personal contentment and political frustration sharing the same space in interesting ways, all too often one polishes down the edges on the other, making for moments too full of sentiment and a little short on substance.
That being said, Mr. Love & Justice is hard album to dislike. It is clearly heartfelt, and clearly an important record to Bragg. The band behind him is tight all the way through, and these songs have melodies strong enough to stick in your head. It is, for all its faults, still a solid record. But, coming from an artist as consistently brilliant as Billy Bragg has been, it could have been a lot more.