Review: Billy Bragg's 'Tooth and Nail' album

Posted Mar 22, 2013 by Tim Sandle
Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has released his first major album in five years, an Americana inspired set called 'Tooth and Nail'. It is an excellent album about love, loss and hope.
Cover image - Billy Bragg  Tooth and Nail
Cover image - Billy Bragg 'Tooth and Nail'
Billy Bragg
British musician Billy Bragg, best known for his songs “Between the Wars” and the song which the sweet voiced Kirsty MacColl covered: “A New England”, has released a new album titled 'Tooth and Nail'.
Bragg's musical career has fluctuated between the agit-pop, politically and socially conscious work of his early albums where more often it was simply himself and a guitar; to an attempt at a 'pop album' in the early 1990s; through to a collaboration with the U.S. band Wilco in recording the lost songs of Woody Guthrie (the Mermaid Avenue project); and culminating with the slightly more experimental fare on his albums of the early 2000s.
The new album is more heavily influenced by Bragg's work on the Guthrie project and is far more influenced by Americana than his early years attempts at being an English one man version of The Clash. The album is also, surprising for Bragg's interest in social causes, lacking in direct political commentary. Virtually all of the songs are about love, loss or aging.
Another notable distinction, for those more familiar with the Billy Bragg vocal style (a type of 'estuary English' or Essex-meets-East London), is the change to his vocal range. His singing style is softer, warm, almost soulful.
This change in tract might have something to do with the way in which the album was recorded and produced. The album was recorded live in just five days with Californian producer Joe Henry. Henry has worked with such artists Solomon Burke, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Hugh Laurie, and Allen Toussaint.
In terms of the new album, for this reviewer, it is a stronger and more coherent work than his last two major releases: 'England, Half-English' (where the global cacophony of sound didn't hang all that well at times) and 2008's 'Mr. Love and Justice' (which was generally too disjointed) (2011 releases 'Pressure Drop' and 'Fight Songs' were a mix of compilations and live recordings).
The album contains twelve songs and the musical style is infused heavily with Americana and country influences. Some of the songs are out-and-out love songs, but with a novel twist. "Handyman Blues", is written as a letter of apology, with an injection of wry humor, to his wife for his lack of manual dexterity around the house. A live version of the song is shown in the video below:
Another moving song about relationships is 'Your Name on My Tongue', which conjures up those old feelings of longing and desire very vividly. On 'Chasing Rainbows', which echos Hank Williams, Bragg adds some humor to the idea of looking for love, when he sings "if you go chasing rainbows then you're bound to end up getting wet."
Other songs are slightly melancholic, and at the same time touching, with a nod towards the passing of time, such as on 'Swallow My Pride' and, most notably, the mournful farewell of 'Goodbye, Goodbye'.
Bragg also remains a topical songwriter. The track ‘No One Knows Nothing Anymore‘, questions where we stand in the world and suggests the blind are leading the blind in this modern age. It is also the only song, that this reviewer is aware of, to make reference to the Large Hadron Collider. This track can be viewed in a video, designed to promote the new album, below:
The album is not without occasional political references, although these are less overt that Bragg's 1980s output. On 'There Will Be a Reckoning’ Bragg makes reference to the current economic downturn and makes a stand against “the politicians who led us to this fate”. ­This is balanced with an optimistic look towards the future on 'Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day', whereas 'Do Unto Others' is a country blues call to follow the Bible’s teachings about compassion (where he quotes the refrain "do unto others as you would have them do to you").
On the opening track, 'January Song', which also deals with the death of his mother, Bragg takes another swipe at the political class: “Politician selling freedom/ Bumper sticker 50 cents/ Ask him what he wants to be free from/ Answer don’t make any sense.”
There is one cover version on the album, fittingly enough a Woody Guthrie song. The track is the anthemic "I Ain’t Got No Home", which is a lament to a wandering worker struggling to survive the depression of the 1930s. Bragg adds an evocative touch of world weariness to his interpretation of the song.
In short, 'Tooth and Tail' is an interesting album, finely crafted, gently played and sung, but also sometimes challenging, and it is perhaps the kind of dignified folk-pop record that a 55 year-old should make. This Digital Journal reviewer gives the album 5 out of 5.
Tooth and Nail is available from record stores, Amazon and from Bragg's own website.
The track listing is:
1. January Song
2. No One Knows Nothing Anymore
3. Handyman Blues
4. I Ain't Got No Home (Woody Guthrie)
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