Mr. Love & Justice
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2008, Volume 15, #10
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed October 22, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Gone are the days when fans could expect Billy Bragg to issue a new album every year. As a young man living in Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s iron-fisted regime, Bragg was full of fire and vitriol, which translated into some of the most stirring political music this side of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ era.
For many people, Bragg’s heart-on-his-sleeve sentiments remain an acquired taste. He’s not much of a singer, and the average guitarist probably can play the instrument at least as well as he does. Often, his rhymes and melodies are so conventional that it’s impossible not to wonder if Bragg is familiar with the words "subtle" and "understated."
Yet, there is something deeply endearing about Bragg’s sincerity as well as his willingness to take a stand on the issues. Over the years, tunes like Milkman of Human Kindness, Levi Stubb’s Tears, and Valentine’s Day Is Over have remained irresistible. As time has gone on, however, Bragg’s well of inspiration seems to have run dry. Both his family life and creeping middle-age are now the focal points of his work, and the new recordings that he previously had unleashed with incredible regularity suddenly have become rarer and rarer. Aside from a pair of collections of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs on which Bragg collaborated with Wilco and two underwhelming original releases — 1999’s Preaching to the Converted and 2001’s William Bloke — Bragg has been rather quiet over the course of the past decade.
Time has a way of rendering perceptions into a soft focus. The persona of an angry young man that the press created to encapsulate Bragg has shifted with the passage of years. Somehow — especially in Britain — he has transformed himself into a kind of cuddly, socialist elder statesman. Many of the songs on Mr. Love & Justice, his latest album, are informed by the tension between his antagonistic past and the contented family man that he has become. Nevertheless, although there are some fine moments on the effort, it often is an affair that is frustratingly bloodless.
There is a tendency, of course, to freeze one’s perceptions of an artist, preserving them within whatever moment in time that a person wishes they would remain forever. As unfair as this may be, it’s difficult not to wish that there was some issue or event that had upset Bragg enough to get him to break a sweat and write songs that contain some of the fire and passion that he had exhibited in his youth. Bragg may have reached a state of contentment, but artistically, he now sounds as if he is in serious trouble.
Mr. Love & Justice begins well enough. I Keep Faith, the album’s opening track, has all of the trademarks of a classic Bragg-penned song. Consequently, it is the most truthful and relevant statement on Mr. Love and Justice. Within the track, Bragg assures his fans that age and time have done nothing to diminish his commitment to driving the world toward achieving social equity. Like many of Bragg’s compositions, the intersection between love, personal happiness, and political commitment is explored in a way that causes them to be viewed as inseparable. I Keep Faith is a fine tune, and it offers a promising beginning to the endeavor.
Unfortunately, Bragg is unable to accomplish this admirable goal throughout the rest of Mr. Love & Justice. Tracks like Sing Their Souls Back Home and The Johnny Carcinogenic Show are full of embarrassing cliché-addled lyrics that, to be frank, are not worthy of an artist of Bragg’s caliber. They often sound like the work of a talented senior high school student rather than material that was penned by one of today’s most respected political songwriters. Of the remaining cuts, only M Is for Me, with its clever wordplay and lovely melody, and the title track are worth hearing.
If Bragg had released the better songs on Mr. Love & Justice as an EP — something he routinely did in the past — and waited until he had full slate of satisfying compositions to record a full-length album, the outing would have represented a fine return to form. Instead, Bragg often is depicted on Mr. Love & Justice as a blowhard and a musical has-been whose best days are well behind him. Hopefully, time will prove this statement wrong, and Bragg will rediscover his Muse and issue an outing that is worthy of his considerable reputation.
Of Further Interest...
Mr. Love & Justice is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box