If it’s true that we mellow with age, Billy Bragg’s a big kid at heart. Thirty years since his debut album, he’s only now beginning to side-step away from his soap box, switching his attention from the political to the personal with the album he unveils tonight.
The low key launch of Tooth & Nail – his first album for five years – is no reflection of Bragg’s enthusiasm… nor that of his fans. The 100 tickets on sale for tonight’s show were snapped up in seconds and the man himself is in good form, despite a chest infection. He’s keen to reveal what he’s been working on since 2008’s Mr Love And Justice and the results are surprising, given the political and financial backdrop it was written against.
At a time when subjects for songs are dished up for him on a daily basis, one of the country’s best known political activists and protest song writers has left the picket line to write about matters a lot closer to home. Much like the slating he received for queuing up to meet the Queen after an event a few years back (“Lots of people wait around after shows to shake my hand and get an autograph… why should I treat her any differently?” he quips) – some might turn their noses up at this decision, but it’s still littered with the warmth, humour and acute observations that make every Bragg album – and live show – a joy.
Flanked by the band he pulled together to record the album, Bragg is as witty and engaging as ever; playing the crowd like they were a group of friends down the pub. But, with his largely downbeat, melancholic collection recorded with US blues legend Joe Henry, he cuts a more serious figure. Henry’s influence smothers the songs, with steel pedal guitar twangs creating a woozy, country-by-numbers sound that’s not restricted to the new album. Favourites to get a make-over include Great Leap Forwards, Sexuality and The Space Race Is Over.
It recalls his work with Wilco, recording unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics, almost 15 years ago – and of course, Tooth & Nail includes the statutory Guthrie cover, I Ain’t Got No Home. Again, he’s absorbed himself in the sound – he’s even grown a beard – and with politics temporarily off the menu, his writing focuses on struggles of a very different kind. He’s been giving the political songs away online, he says, “But these ones are emotional heroin… I’m gonna make you pay for this…” There’s the philosophical No One Knows Nothing Anymore (“The first thing they teach you in song writing school is that alliteration trumps grammar”), a tear jerking ode to his late mum, Goodbye Goodbye, while, ever the master of the alternative love song, Handyman Blues details his DIY failings, which he dedicates it to his wife – “the only person in here not laughing.”
Some might say we need a classic Bragg album now more than ever, but he pumped more of himself into Tooth & Nail than any of his political rants – and the result is a more intimate collection of songs that’s just as passionate.