BILLY BRAGG: MR. LOVE & JUSTICE (2008)
1) I Keep Faith; 2) I Almost Killed You; 3) M For Me; 4) The Beach Is Free; 5) Sing Their Souls Back Home; 6) You Make Me Brave; 7) Something Happened; 8) Mr. Love & Justice; 9) If You Ever Leave; 10) O Freedom; 11) The Johnny Carcinogenic Show; 12) Farm Boy.
Six years between albums is a long time even for the 21st century — you'd think that, perhaps, the artist has completely run out of new things to say (which, of course, has never prevented bad or desperate artists from putting out new music anyway, so it's actually more of a compliment than a critique in this case). And when, eventually, new things had accumulated to a proper degree, what we saw was an almost strangely humble and low-key Billy Bragg, almost as if he'd seen his turning fifty as a sign from God to quiet down and start acting his age. No loudness, no tension, no screaming, no anger — a wisened-up elder statesman.
The music is still nice, though. Sentimental, touching, with a pinch of catchiness and the usual intelligent Billy Bragg charisma, even if it is occasionally wasted on very local pieces of progressive propaganda (yes, ʽThe Johnny Carcinogenic Showʼ is a rant against the advertising of tobacco companies on TV, which is a noble cause in general but makes for poor art in particular). But these pieces are not frequent — somehow, peace, love, and tranquility seem to be the album's main topics, since even the anti-Iraq war tune (ʽSing Their Souls Back Homeʼ) is more of a sincere prayer for the soldiers' safe return than a passionate rant against the crooked politicians who sent them there in the first place.
And that's all right, as it seems that Billy does honorably perform the artist's main duty — follow the tugs of the heart, wherever it happens to find itself at the moment. The tone of the record is immediately set by its opening and arguably best number, ʽI Keep Faithʼ: true to the title, the song has subtle gospel overtones (mainly reflected in the use of organ and vocal harmonies), but it is anything but traditionally religious — the artist keeps faith in humanity rather than God, and proves it with a low-key anthem where, perhaps, the greatest asset is the tone that he has chosen for his voice: cracked, worn, and weary, yet deliberately friendly, optimistic, and supportive. Nice chorus resolution, too, and a good mix of pianos, jangly guitars, and strings.
Everything that follows is plain, simple, unadorned, and direct, yet with enough stylistic and instrumental diversity to be very easily sat through without getting bored. Sometimes it's just a bit of a carefree pop-rock romp at the happiness of having something that still conforms to the man's socialist ideas (ʽThe Beach Is Freeʼ, with a slightly «de-syncopated» Bo Diddley rhythm expressing the happiness); sometimes it's a dark folk dance acknowledging the sadness of the ultimate crash of these ideas (ʽO Freedomʼ, featuring the most paranoid, Richie Havens-worthy, acoustic backing track and the mantra "o freedom, what liberties are taken in thy name!" for the chorus); but most often, it's just a quiet love song — not a breakup song, not a bad bitch song, but an "if you ever leave me, my dear, there's nothing for me here" type of song.
And at the end of it all, Billy offers us a confession — as it turns out, he is "just a farm boy" and he is "just dreaming of the time when I can go home". Formally, it's just another anti-war song, but it can also be interpreted as a sort of "I'm tired" statement in general, tired especially from being pushed around by idiotic and/or oppressive decisions of, you know, the System, without really being able to do anything about it. There is no exaggerated desperation or frustration, it's all more of an "I'm old and tired, I'd just like to settle down and love my wife, but they still keep pestering me with all that shit" vibe that most of us are likely to empathize with more and more as we reach mid- and then old age. It's a reasonable vibe indeed, and it's propped up by a set of okay songs that suit it well — not too striking, but not completely unoriginal, either. And maybe it's just me, but it seems as if Billy's abilities as a singer are only improving as time goes by (and his drawn-out Cockney accent, funny enough, is also much less prominent). No great shakes, but enough love, justice, and honest songwriting on the record to guarantee a modest thumbs up.