Billy Bragg‘s latest release ‘Tooth & Nail‘ saw the British troubadour head to California to the home of producer Joe Henry who also has the likes of Lisa Hannigan’s very fine ‘Passenger’ notched to his credit. Despite the studio album hiatus since his 2008 release Mr. Love & Justice this album isn’t knee deep in Bragg’s usual political stomping ground but that doesn’t mean he’s left the struggle behind…there’s a good reason why this is called ‘Tooth and Nail’.
For this release, Bragg got off the train that he’s been fueling for so long to reflect on his musical future, something that was further triggered by the loss of his mother in 2011. The decision to head out to Joe Henry’s basement studio in January 2012 was as much about setting himself a challenge to see what he now had to offer. Bragg admits that he has up to now kept the record industry at arms length but this album sets him back on a new path and the results speak clearly for themselves.
The songs include themes of love and heartache as well as some nice touches of humour on ‘Handyman Blues‘ on which Bragg argues that his lack of handyman skills for putting up a shelf or building a garden shed are outweighed by his ability to write and sing love songs. It’s not all love and loss, there are some provoking questions asked on ‘No One Knows Nothing Anymore‘ which suggests the blind are leading the blind in this modern age with a clear call to stop pretending and start all over again, something that will make a lot of sense to many.
The main crux of the songs deal with issues at a very personal level and the line-up of guest musicians all add their magic into a soulful stew…the lap steel of Greg Leisz (Bon Iver) keeps the heart strings tugging on the choruses and the band have the ability to make it rootsy and dusty as they do on the surprising ‘Do Unto Others‘ which quotes bible to the Americana fuelled ‘There Will Be A reckoning‘.
Having just signed with the Cooking Vinyl label for the sixth time but, unlike previous contracts, with a worldwide deal, Bragg aims to make a big splash and whilst he will no doubt have a few critics with this change in tact the album has achieved what he set out to do. These songs live up to his gift as a songsmith and bring a tear as much as they provoke introspection…Bragg continues to embrace ‘the struggle’, he just brings it down to a micro-level and shoots straight for the heart.