[Cooking Vinyl, 2013]
I first discovered Billy Bragg in 1991 when I heard “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood” on the radio. That led me to the record it appeared on, Don’t Try This at Home. It seemed like the first time I listened to someone whose thick British accent came through clearly in their singing – it was unlike any accent I had heard before – in fact, I thought he was Scottish at first. It was love at first hear. This led me to his small, but potent back catalog. Wow, this guy was mad about a lot of stuff, mostly the government. He was like England’s Dylan then, but with a punk edge and contemporary windmills to tilt at. It was perfect – I loved punk, I loved Dylan and I was mad about a lot of stuff too.
So what happens when the punk-folk poet with the anger at the government becomes a folk-rock middle-aged man, singing about bygones rather than railing against the establishment? If it were anyone other than Bragg, probably a good deal of sadness. But here, with Tooth and Nail, Bragg manages just fine – because these are still well-crafted songs. This is an album of regret, rumination but ultimately hope. Even in those few spots where it’s political, Bragg is more the philosopher educating the youth than the preacher railing from atop a milk carton on the street corner.
Bragg picks up where he left off with his Mermaid Avenue sessions – the series of Woody Guthrie recordings he did with Wilco between 1998 and 2000. Tooth and Nail is about looking back on life, about love and life in an imperfect world. While not quite a new age Dust Bowl Troubadour, Bragg is now our elder statesman on life as a regular guy fighting against the things regular guys fight – age, lost love, complacency, and he even includes a beautiful take on Guthrie’s own “I Ain’t Got No Home” for that old taste of the Dust Bowl.
Right off the bat in the album opener, “January Song,” Bragg lets us know that he’s “so tightly wound in tension,” “so tired of being wired,” and his “journey has been so hard lately.” He’s preparing us for an album full of old age and beauty hidden in dirty corners. Over the next few songs, Bragg laments everything from his inability to help around the house (“Handyman Blues”) to his destructive stubbornness getting in the way of true love (“Swallow My Pride”). Each of these songs have a light bluesy touch with such sparse instrumentation that it’s Bragg’s voice and the lyrics shining throughout. Bragg has plenty of curveballs on Tooth and Nail – from a man who has spoken of his dislike of organized religion, he sticks a song about the Golden Rule right in the middle of the album. While “Do Unto Others” isn’t a song about religion per se, it does refer to Bible stories and gives advice on how to treat people – something often forgotten by religious and non-religious alike (“too many people looking out for number one”). The light New Orleans touch in the bridge gives the song additional weight.
Bragg’s blood finally shows a little of the old boil in “There Will Be A Reckoning” – when the song hits the chorus it sounds like something Bruce Springsteen might have put on any of his post-Human Touch albums. Even on this anti-politician, uptempo track, there’s still a passiveness to it – “There will be a reckoning/For the peddlers of hate/Who spread their poison all across this estate/And a reckoning too, for the politicians who/Left us to this fate.” The bad guys will get what’s coming to them, but not in our lifetime and not because of the railing we’ve done. Then, with Chasing Rainbows, we move right back to slow, contemplative, and reflective. Slide guitar and light piano are all that’s needed while Bragg’s gruff yet still pleasing voice laments his failings to a gal who maybe should have reached higher when she reached for him.
“Your Name on My Tongue” is the prettiest song on an album full of pretty songs. It is an intimate and melancholy portrait with the perfect touch of mandolin and twinkly piano, ending in a hoarse whisper. And just when you think thoughts of failure and regret are the only order of the day, Bragg does a 180 and ends Tooth and Nail with “Tomorrow’s Going To Be a Better Day.” The guitar here is so soft that the track is almost a cappella with Bragg’s voice and his whistling the drivers of a song about optimism in a world of horrors. We’re all older and we all have regrets in life, but some of us are still mad about a lot of things. So Bragg wants to surprise us in his optimism – he really hasn’t changed his views over the years, he hasn’t completely lost that punk edge, and he hasn’t stopped railing against what he sees as injustices – but he is tired, and he wants to make sure we know, in spite of it all, he still sees the world as a glass half-full.