I believe in Billy Bragg. This statement comes at a time when there’s not much in which to put faith. Economic crises, extreme world poverty and politicians that squabble and connive while there’s a war ensuing that’s already five years old and no end in the near future. That’s probably why the upcoming Batman sequel is relying on the similarly phrased line from The Long Halloween comics, “I believe in Harvey Dent,” as its marketing scheme. We have to find something in which to believe. Not to completely jump off the rails, but I have to mention my brother’s theory. He claims that the best art comes during times that are morally and ethically bankrupt (i.e. Republican regimes). While not necessarily limited to purely political works, the case can certainly be made for protest music. There’s a reason why Rage Against the Machine’s great debut album was borne from the first Bush administration, and also why they reunited during Bush Jr.’s terms. Billy Bragg’s best albums came during the Reagan and initial Bush reigns, but then again, Bragg is from England. Ah! But those albums line up with Thatcher and Major just as snugly. My point is that the lesser of us always need a voice of hope, one to ring out and boldly speak truth to power. For 25 years, that person has been Billy Bragg.
Mr. Love & Justice is surprisingly only Bragg’s seventh album (not counting the Wilco collaborations) in that 25 year span, but as fans of the British anti-folk troubadour know, every wait is worth it. Eventually, all roads lead to Billy Bragg. My journey began back in 1991, a goodly time after the artist had been established with some great albums. I bought a bootleg CD set of an R.E.M. show at the Borderline in London. The show featured two very special guests, one Robyn Hitchcock and the other, Billy Bragg. At the same time, my college roommate was introducing me to the man’s own work from the then current Don’t Try This At Home on backwards to his debut. I know of many others who were Wilco fans, finding Bragg through the Mermaid Avenue collaborative albums, though because of squabbling between the two acts, many fans of both ended up taking sides. Now, as the press sheet that came with Mr. Love & Justice declares, he’s been a huge inspiration to recent British anti-folk and pop acts such as KT Tunstall, Kate Nash and Jamie T. That’s not surprising, but I was surprised that the one-sheet spent more time talking about these other `popular’ acts than Billy Bragg or his own actual album!
I mean, really, this would be like heralding a new Bowie album by discussing the careers of Mika and the Scissor Sisters. This is Billy freakin’ Bragg we’re talking about here! With that in mind, let’s actually discuss the new album, shall we? While I’ve expressed my belief in Bragg, he opens with the Van Morrison-like “I Keep Faith,” a song about love and commitment in a time when that kind of sacrifice comes at a premium. On the flipside, all of Bragg’s lyrics in this song could easily be turned around as an appreciation for his own work. There’s no doubt that Bragg is one of rock’s finest lyricists, right up there with Elvis Costello, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. And there are moments of lyrical sparkle on Mr. Love & Justice (incidentally, his second album named after a Colin MacInnes novel, and is fitting considering there are two types of tracks on the album, those dealing with, well….you get it, right?), but for the most part, the Bard of Barking’s bite is less vicious and more loving. The first three songs deal exclusively with the concept of love, as do a few others including the wonderfully spare “You Make Me Brave.” The best lyrics, and music to be perfectly honest, come with “M for Me,” probably the wittiest track with wordplay wince XTC’s “Your Dictionary.” Lines like “Take the Me for me and the Y for you out of family and it all falls through.” Although, some might say that the `clover’ line is too similar to the Motels’ “Take the L.”
Bragg can get a bit rocking with his love songs, however, as he does with “Something Happened,” in which he sings, “Do you know what love is? Love is when you willingly place someone else’s priorities above your own” while electric guitars paradoxically churn and grind. The title track is another Van Morrison-type number with gorgeous organs leading into late Beatles’ eastern-influenced Harrison guitars. “O Freedom,” an odd, Tom Waits meets Ani DiFranco tune, is one of those dealing with the concept of justice. Sure, the UK has been Labour for the past eleven years (though some might say that ten of those were in name only), but Bragg proves himself to be a global type of guy. “O Freedom, what liberties are taken in thy name,” is a lyric that pretty much sums up what this one is all about. And while Bragg has always been a voice for the little people, a punk-era version of Joan Baez or Bob Dylan, it seems that at age 50, he is starting to struggle for subjects as is evidenced by the anti-tobacco company track, “The Johnny Carcinogenic Show.” Is there anyone left out there who doesn’t realize that cigarettes are bad for you?
Though the cover may just say Billy Bragg, his band the Blokes are a big part of this record. This is the band Bragg put together after the rift with Wilco, and ever since, the Blokes have been a part of his records and tours. This full sound, with Hammond organs, varied percussion, slightly harder edged electric guitars and an overall bluesy feel may leave fans wishing for the Bragg of old. In that case, he’s made a version of the album just for you! The deluxe edition of the album has a second disc of Bragg performing these songs solo and mostly acoustic. I doubt anyone would claim Mr. Love & Justice is Bragg’s best album, but, like Van Morrison, he’s aged gracefully and one can at least expect a certain level of quality with each release. And, as I get older, it’s comforting to know that many of my favorite artists are still out there making music. So, you can have your KT Tunstalls and your Kate Nashes. I believe in Billy Bragg.