Billy Bragg albums aren’t exactly regular events (this is only his fourth official release since 1996) so, for those who consider him one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, any new collection of material is something to treasure. His last outing, 2008’s Mr Love and Justice, was a lovely piece of work. Steeped in American folk, it certainly saw him back on form after the rather dreary England, Half England. Since then, of course, the world has turned upside down and as anyone who has seen Bragg live of late will know, he’s got a fair bit to say on the matter.
Thus Tooth & Nail (recorded in five days) arrives with the hope that it’ll set about those responsible for the mess that we’re in, all soundtracked by the singer at his strident best. That’s not quite the case. The album sees Bragg move even further towards the mellow centre, in music and words. The fact that he is as interested in the personal as the political is no surprise but still we might have expected a bit more fight from the old boy. ‘January Song’ does set some sort of agenda, an intimate opener that prophesies “this is how the end begins”. ‘No-One Knows Nothing Anymore’ tackles science and economics against a slide guitar and it’s clear that we won’t be revisiting the solo electric sound anytime soon.
Even so, this is a pedestrian listen. ‘Handyman Blues’ is Bragg at his wry best (“I’m a writer not a decorator”) but track after track of this relaxed approach begins to try the patience. Whereas Mr Love and Justice injected a soulful passion into his take on Americana, here there is little to catch the imagination. ‘There Will Be A Reckoning’ shows some spark of defiance but, as he says on ‘Chasing Rainbows’, “the wheels have come off again”. Of course, there’s nothing to say that Billy Bragg should have played to type and returned with all guns blazing but still, this feels like a missed opportunity and – if we do have to wait another five years for him to record again – it won’t be Tooth & Nail that sustains us.