Billy Bragg - Tooth & Nail (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
IT’S always refreshing when an established artist decides to stretch himself. Thirty years after his debut release, Billy Bragg does just that with Tooth & Nail, his first studio album in five years.
Drawing on more personal themes than political ones, this also saw Bragg travelling to Pasadena to work with producer Joe Henry in order to challenge himself more.
The result took him well out of his comfort zone as he recorded all the vocals live, without retakes or overdubs, thereby marking a return to the more rootsy sound of 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, which he recorded with Wilco.
Vocally, you could argue that Bragg has seldom sounded better, even if there’s a somewhat downbeat quality to the themes that populate the songs.
Lead single No One Knows Nothing Anymore is particularly despondent, asking questions like “what if we’re just passing through time?” and touching on social issues with: “What happens wen the markets drop? If the numbers really don’t add up? Everyone seeks the safe haven…”
Yet, the influence of Pasadena, or rather Americana, can be heard in the country twang of Bragg’s guitar, which is further embellished across the album by a troupe of musicians headed by pedal steel exponent Greg Leisz.
Handyman Blues, as its name suggests, is a sleepy blues standard with some lovely riffs running through, and a vocal that feels deliciously lived in, while Swallow My Pride adopts an almost confessional approach while layering in the bluesy vibe to more robust effect. It’s one of my album favourites.
Do Unto Others, similarly, has a very American vibe about it, thanks to some foot-tapping percussion, a ragtime vibe and even the faintest hint of gospel.
Anyone who wonders where the more brash Bragg has disappeared to can take reassurance from There Will Be A Reckoning, which offers a grittier approach and a nice combination of moody vocals, edgy riffs and sombre piano chords.
But in the main, this is about keeping things subtle and almost tender, in keeping with the more intimate, heart-on-sleeve themes behind the album. A criticism could be that it’s a little too melancholy and sedate throughout.
But then Bragg has never been known for sunshine tendencies in his song-writing. And he does punctuate the album with notes of optimism, never more so than on final offering Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day.
But by turning the focus onto himself for a change, he’s also got a lot more interesting. This is his best work in ages.
Download picks: Handyman Blues, Swallow My Pride, Do Unto Others, There Will Be A Reckoning, Your Name On My Tongue