Music Review: “Tooth and Nail” by Billy Bragg – posted 10/5/2014
It is a little late to be reviewing Billy Bragg’s 2013 CD, “Tooth and Nail”, but I wanted to write an appreciation. It is a great album all the way through. It is rare to find an album that has so many consistently good songs.
For those who do not know Billy Bragg (and I have been surprised to find many who do not know of him), he is a British leftist folk/rocker. He has been around, performing for almost 30 years. The closest American parallel I could think of is Phil Ochs. Like Phil did, Bragg plays at many political events in addition to his touring. I heard he was recently in Ferguson Missouri which does not surprise me. Bragg is an activist musician.
I first learned of Bragg when I heard Worker’s Playtime, a fine album he cut in 1988. He has been knocking around since then. Artists like Bragg seem to operate outside the celebrity machine. You will not find him on Access Hollywood. While it is extremely difficult for musicians to survive and make a living, Bragg has succeeded.
“Tooth and Bone” is a mix of political and love songs. Bragg has a knack for writing in an appealing, non-polemical way. Plus his songs are melodic. I cannot think of any current political songwriter who is as skilled as Bragg in combining the personal and the political. I would acknowledge there does not seem to be much competition. Probably those who would compete cannot reach any mass audience so they remain unknown.
My favorite song on the album is his version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”. That song is timeless and universal. I believe it originally appeared on Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. It could have been written today. I actually think Bragg’s version is better than the original. I imagine it is hard to write songs about homelessness but Bragg’s version captures the sadness and hopelessness. In hearing the song, it did make me think that it is surprising there are not more songs like it.
Bragg writes, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road, a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod..” Now it is like millions have trod that road but it is amazing how little we talk about it or sing about it.
Maybe it is too real a topic for singers to take on especially since most singers are likely so removed from it. Considering the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, there should be more songs about it than there are. I do think we are anesthetized as a society to not feel and to not imagine. We generally lack the ability to put ourselves in the position of the other.
I also really liked “There Will Be a Reckoning”. The lyrics are about attempts to divide people by hate. I assume Bragg is talking about racism, sexism and homophobia. The song has some fire and it is like an anthem against hate. I think the title is cool.
The song “Over You” is poetry. I am not sure I can say exactly what it is about but the song moves well and the words seem right. I really like it.
There are some love songs on the album too. I will mention “Swallow my Pride”. That song speaks to the need to own up to mistakes. Also “Handyman Blues”…that song is one I can particularly relate to not being a Mr. Fix-it.
The album ends on a positive note. “Tomorrow’s Going to be a Better Day” is a mature, glass-half-full perspective. The tone is not whiny negativity. On the contrary, it is upbeat and reflects Bragg’s activist bent.
Listening to Bragg made me wonder about the decline of political folk music. Maybe I am too removed from contemporary music but the political music genre seems moribund. I suppose the music scene follows the culture generally. The 60’s revival of political folk followed the Movement. Our lack of political music reflects the sadly internalized world view that dominates our social lives now. In a world of every person committed to a best private outcome, music is mostly an endless succession of love songs. The dark side may get covered but not in a politically aware way.
If you are unfamiliar with Billy Bragg, just go to youtube and check him out. If you are familiar, consider buying this CD. Independent musicians need the support and I fully expect you will love it. I sure have and that is after many listens.