One of pop’s great unsolved mysteries is why, in around 1995, Billy Bragg started singing in an American accent. Actually, it’s not even a proper American accent, but sits uncomfortably somewhere between Barking and Baltimore. Much like what one might expect from Loyd Grossman if he drove a Transit van.
Used with some degree of restraint over his last couple of albums, it’s all over Mr Love and Justice like a rash, and lends a perpetual sense of contrivance to the whole enterprise. Mid-town middle-brow America appears to have seeped deeply into Bragg’s pores. Just as every vowel is milked for maximum schmaltz, backing band The Blokes spend most of the album churning out inoffensive but wholly predictable good-time bar-room rhythm’n’blues. Steel guitars, Hammond organs and harmonicas are the order of the day, never breaking or even threatening to break into anything interesting or inspiring.
It’s all harmless enough, but adds precious little to Bragg’s stimulating and varied back catalogue. Aficionados know that his pithy love songs are equal, if not superior, to his familiar political polemics; but fans of either genre will find little to stimulate them here.
He’s always had a keen talent for tapping into the key cultural issues of the day, exposing the injustices of Thatcher’s Britain in the ’80s, or more recently taking on the BNP and asylum-obsessed tabloids by questioning issues of national identity. Maybe his pen is losing its point as he approaches 50, but the targets for protest on Mr Love and Justice seem much softer, and his tone more curmudgeonly than impassioned.
On Something Happened, we learn that “Lust is when you actively force your own priorities on someone else.” Yeah, but, surely, lust is just, like, when you just wanna shag someone, yeah, grandad? And not only is The Johnny Carcinogenic Show just about the worst pun ever coined, the song is so predictable and sanctimonious in its criticism of the tobacco industry that upon hearing it I promptly resumed my 20-a-day Embassy Filter habit out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Only O Freedom, a sideways swipe at anti-terror legislation and imprisonment without charge, feels incisive or challenging. Mercifully the American accent is dropped, though with the inevitable (if indirect) allusions to Guantanamo, it’s the only song on the album where a mid-Atlantic brogue would have been halfway relevant.
Elsewhere, we’re meandering gently around satisfactory relationships (I Keep Faith, You Make Me Brave), the importance of commitment in order to maintain a satisfactory relationship (M for Me, If You Ever Leave), and how one might feel at the end of a relationship which one had previously assumed was satisfactory (Mr Love and Justice). All delivered in that faintly ridiculous accent. Thematically and lyrically, it’s as bland as all of this suggests.
The title track contains the unforgivable couplet “I’m still waking up in the morning with a troubled mind / Can’t believe that you left me / How could I be so blind?” Even where Bragg aims to recreate the spiky epigrams of the past, he flounders. On M for Me he explains that if you “Take the M for me and the Y for you out of family then it all falls through.” More of a Daily Telegraph crossword clue than the punchy, economical backstreet poetry we used to admire him for.
After six years away this pasty Americana comes as a big disappointment. Maybe he hasn’t got that much to sing about these days, on the personal or the political front. If we all grit our teeth and vote Tory next time round, perhaps he’ll rediscover his muse and relocate his heart and mind to the good ole UK.