Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Billy Bragg. His music has meant a lot to me since my late teens. Back to Basics, a compilation of Bragg’s first three recordings — Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and Between the Wars, — contains some of my absolute favorite songs of all time. “To Have and Have Not,” “A New England,” “The Saturday Boy,” “St. Swithin’s Day,” “A Lover Sings,” and “Between the Wars,” just off the top of my head, are stone classics in the world of CoolDad. Help Save the Youth of America, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, Workers’ Playtime, Don’t Try This at Home… I love them all. Even today, when I noodle around on my guitar, I find myself banging out those songs from Back to Basics while I try to figure out what to practice next.
I remember drunkenly singing a medley of Bragg’s songs in the deserted Winter Garden of the World Financial Center (had to be 1990 or 1991) with my friend Lloyd, late at night, after some office Christmas party or something. Our voices echoed throughout the atrium. Lloyd’s accent was real. Mine was, of course, a put-on.
CoolMom and I bonded over Billy Bragg when we first met back in the early nineties. She’d walk to work, wearing her Walkman, listening to Don’t Try This at Home; and we’d talk about our mutual admiration for the Bard of Barking, Essex and his politics during long evenings at the Barrow St. Alehouse. Joining lives also means joining CD collections, and we ended up with two of every title in Bragg’s catalog to that point.
In the early aughts, Bragg turned me onto one of my other great loves, Wilco, as a result of his collaboration with that band and with Nora Guthrie on the Mermaid Avenue project. Those recordings contain some of Bragg’s best late-career work (“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” “The Unwelcome Guest”), and CoolMom and I listened to them almost non-stop.
Maybe it was because Billy and I had both grown older, had children, mellowed; but Bragg’s later albums didn’t speak to me on the same level as his earlier work. I love songs “Upfield” and “The Space Race Is Over” from William Bloke and “Take Down the Union Jack” from England, Half English; but over the years, I’ve found myself going back to the anger, overt lefitst politics, and romance of Bragg’s (and my own) youth and early recordings.
On his latest album, Tooth & Nail, Bragg returns to the sound of those Mermaid Avenue records — even including a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” — and to the feel of “Upfield”’s “socialism of the heart.”
On lead-single, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore,” Bragg points out, over strains of lap steel, that relying on technocrats, experts, and the “self-proclaimed smartest people in the room” hasn’t always worked out so well; and he implicitly asks for a little more humanization in the solutions to our problems.
Humanization and personalization are recurring themes on the record. Songs like “Swallow My Pride,” “Do Unto Others,” and “There Will Be a Reckoning” see Bragg realizing that, if he wants to make his relationships work and last, he’s got to apply all of those things he’s been demanding of the powers that be for so many years to his own life. He closes the record with “Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day,” echoing that warning against cynicism that he gave us when I saw him a while back at City Winery.
Tooth & Nail is Bragg’s best work since those Mermaid Avenue recordings. It’s almost as if his songwriting and his sound have finally caught up to where he is in his life today. Bragg, sadly, lost his mother just before I saw him at his solo City Winery show back in 2011; and this latest record is touched by the self-examination that an event like that can bring on in a person.
We all get older and experience a great deal in our lives. Sometimes we have to fight to hold onto some of that fire and romance that we had when we were younger. We have to fight to hold our relationships together in the face of everything life throws at us. And, yes, even if it’s just in our own lives, in the lives of our kids, or in our own little corner of the world, we have to keep fighting to make the world a better place than it was before we got here. We have to fight tooth and nail.
Tooth & Nail is out now on Cooking Vinyl.