BILLY BRAGG: TOOTH & NAIL (2013)
1) January Song; 2) No One Knows Nothing Anymore; 3) Handyman Blues; 4) I Ain't Got No Home; 5) Swallow My Pride; 6) Do Unto Others; 7) Over You; 8) Goodbye, Goodbye; 9) There Will Be A Reckoning; 10) Chasing Rainbows; 11) Your Name On My Tongue; 12) Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day.
Billy's latest release so far has been, if possible, even more humble and low-key than Mr. Love & Justice. This time, he is largely acoustic, with a minimal backing band, and all the songs are shushy — quiet, reserved, introspective, even introvert. Yet it all sounds so completely natural that you almost begin to wonder if this is not the real Billy Bragg, and all these years of electrobusking and political activism were merely an attempt to cure himself of a natural shyness; and now it's all coming back to him.
Or maybe it is simply that Woody Guthrie experience — you begin as an idealistic activist, but eventually you just get tired, say «fuck it», and become a whisperer rather than a shouter. Not that Tooth & Nail is, by any means, a cynical or a mean record: Billy is still willing to spread the good vibe, not the bitter vibe, as the song titles clearly show (ʽDo Unto Othersʼ, ʽTomorrow's Going To Be A Better Dayʼ). It is just... quiet. No grand rallying statements, just good old timey music from the living room, where you use the medium for a quickie cheer-up. Or cheer-down, because the songs here aren't exactly «cheerful». But they're not all that sad, either.
It is all about the vibe, and the vibe is very cool. Billy's voice has finally matured to the point of providing us with a real personality — this homey, cozy Brit guy who's worried about all the problems in the world, yet is really just a quiet family man in the depths of his heart. A song like ʽHandyman Bluesʼ, where he admits that "the screwdriver business just gets me confused / It takes me half an hour to change a fuse / I'm not your handyman!", goes all the way straight to my own heart, and so do most of the others as well. The melodies are nothing to remember — your regular old folk and country chord changes, with simple, tasteful, unadorned acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and piano to carry them out — but when taken together with the personality, they become charming and endearing.
Sometimes he seems to be pushing it: ʽGoodbye, Goodbyeʼ could easily be taken for a song of resignation, of closing the door on his rowdy past — which is probably not quite what is meant, seeing as how Billy did not exactly become a recluse in 2013 or anything. On the other hand, ʽTomorrow's Going To Be A Better Dayʼ concludes the album with a generally optimistic statement, telling you not to "become demoralized by this chorus of complaint" — even if the song itself is so quiet and shaky that it seems as if the man himself were having trouble believing in his own words. Oh well, I guess that if a musically generic, but atmospherically charismatic record presents itself as a bundle of contradictions, it's all for the better.
The album's «biggest» song is arguably ʽNo One Knows Anything Anymoreʼ, played out a bit louder than everything else (at least, the drums are loud enough) and laying out Billy's general perception of things: "No one knows anything anymore / Nobody really knows the score / Since nobody knows anything / Let's break it down and start again", he suggests to a leisurely tempo and lazy country-rock backing. If this is a denial of progress, you know, he just might have something there — at least, this is consistent with the album's general message: stop the crazy rush, relax, take the time to take it slow and easy (and who knows, maybe you'll also kill a little less people that way). I'm all for progress, but I'm also partial to this vibe, and so, even if the songs here are musically generic, I'm giving the record a thumbs up for all it's worth.