Billy Bragg | Tooth & Nail (Cooking Vinyl)

cd billy-braggAge is giving Bragg’s voice a more wizened, powerful tone that is heartfelt and works so wonderfully with this style of music.

 

 

Thirty-plus years into his career as the folk-punk standard bearer, Bragg has released one of the best albums of his oeuvre. Maybe it’s a side effect to his work with Wilco, or maybe it’s from his involvement with all things Woody Guthrie (one of his idols), but Bragg has recorded a breathtaking album of pure Americana—which is all the more unusual, considering he’s a leftist, workers-of-the-world-unite Englishman.

While listening to Tooth & Nail, I picture myself driving around, seeing places and family and friends. Unlike most of his back catalogue, which is heavy on the political side, here, Bragg turns his lyrics inward. Many of the songs are about individuals and their lives, and if they have really made a dent in this world…and, if so, does anyone care?

At the heart of Bragg’s lyrics on past albums, and on Tooth & Nail is struggle. Earlier, it was a struggle against an oppressive right-wing government, racism, and “national” pride (as an aside, England, Half English is grossly underappreciated). Here, however, the struggles are much more individual and personal. Loss of friends and loved ones weigh heavily on him, particularly with “Goodbye Goodbye” and “Your Name on My Tongue.” An undercurrent of self-doubt runs through several songs, as well. That’s not to say he doesn’t throw in a punch or two at politics. On album opener “January Song,” he gets a good one in with a fantastic line: “Politician sellin’ freedom/ Bumper sticker fifty cents/ Ask him what he wants to be free from/ Answer don’t make any sense.”

Throughout the album, Bragg’s voice soars; rarely has he sounded more deep and soulful. Age usually isn’t a friend to our musical idols; it is the great equalizer. However, age is giving Bragg’s voice a more wizened, powerful tone that is heartfelt and works so wonderfully with this style of music. The overall pace is more subdued than on albums past and leads to a very relaxed feel. The arraignments with his backing band are lush and work wonderfully against his vocals.

Tooth & Nail is not an album you would expect for an artist who has been around for three decades. At this point in Bragg’s career, one would expect him to be on cruise control and just making an album by the numbers, and that is totally not the case. A- | Mike Koehler

Top tracks: No One Knows Nothing Anymore, I Ain’t Got No Home, There Will Be a Reckoning, Your Name on My Tongue

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