Tuesday, June 12, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1146: Billy Bragg

With my holidays over let’s get the pace of these music reviews back on track. How the hell will the internet decide what’s worth listening to without the CD Odyssey?

I was further delayed by the length of this record, which was a deluxe edition with two CDs, one recorded with a backing band and one solo with just Bragg and his guitar. It was 77 minutes of Billy Bragg which is a lot of Bragg, but I liked both versions.

I’ve seen this a lot lately, with Frank Turner (2015), Lucinda Williams (Blessed in 2011) and a Josh Ritter re-issue (Hello Starling in 2010) all being released with “acoustic only” CDs on albums. I like the trend. Sometimes I like the full band, and sometimes just the guitar but it is nice to have the option.

Disc 1146 is… Mr. Love & Justice
Artist: Billy Bragg

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? I have no idea if there is any significance to the buildings that Billy Bragg is staring at on this cover. Whatever the case for an album about love and justice this cover is appropriately laid out in shades of grey. Life is complicated, man.

How I Came To Know It: A while back I did a deep dig through Bragg’s back catalogue and identified all the albums I wanted to have in my collection. “Mr. Love & Justice” was devilishly hard to find for some reason and it took over six months before some kindly anonymous stranger dropped off a used copy at Ditch Record Store.

How It Stacks Up:  I have nine of Billy Bragg’s 13 solo studio albums which for now is all I want. “Mr. Love & Justice” comes in at ninth place. This is not an indictment of its quality, however – it is a testament to how much I like the other eight albums.

Ratings: 3 stars

In the last decade Billy Bragg’s boisterousness has faded a bit, but his principal passions – love and various social and political causes – burn as brightly as they ever have. If anything, his mellowing vocals help the message go down easier. I don’t think he’s lost his edge, I think he’s learned you don’t have to shout to be heard.

These themes are once again present on the aptly titled “Mr. Love & Justice”, a record that explores both concepts, although on balance the songs about justice land stronger overall than those about love.

The opening track, “I Keep Faith” is the exception to this. It is a gentle song of forgiveness and endurance – two key and underrated strengths to any great love affair. It is also Bragg’s strongest vocal performance on the record. He’s not a gifted singer, but he has a resonant tone that matches well with the heavy twang of his guitar playing here.

After this, love takes a step back. “I Almost Killed You” feels like a throwback to mid-eighties Bragg but it had me wishing I could hear those early songs, not reinvent them. “You Make Me Brave” feels a bit schmaltzy, and when Bragg delivers it a capella on the acoustic Disc 2 it doesn’t help. Instead it reminded me of that kid singing “Killing Me Softly” in “About a Boy” but…more awkward. And that’s a lot of awkward. I’m sure this song gets played at Billy Bragg fans’ weddings but I would recommend they switch to “Handyman Blues” if you’re looking for heartfelt expressions of love and devotion. But I digress…

Bragg more than makes up for any clunkiness in the love department when he dons his social justice warrior’s hat. This worked strong on the acoustic version of the CD particularly, giving the album an imminence that made you feel like Bragg was busking in the streets where he got his start – but this time the new songs were welcome. It also helps that Bragg has the ability to pull a lot of background power out of his solo guitar playing and not lose the plot.

I liked the acoustic CD better overall, but most of the songs were good either way. I particularly loved both versions of the peace song “Sing Their Souls Back Home.” On the full instrumentation version there is a built in chorus and backup singers that makes you want to sing along. On the acoustic version, it is just Bragg and his guitar but he sings with such full heart and passion that you can hear the ghosts of all those backup singers joining him in spirit.

Farm Boy” is a worthy entry in the canon of war songs that feature characters far from home, confronting moral quandaries as they encounter their enemy only to find them not so different from themselves. It had me thinking of John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches,” and Steve Earle’s “Rich Man’s War”.

Whatever you think of the reasons for any specific war, the heroics and human cost of the soldiers that fight them is something that Bragg has always understood and respected. For him, love and justice will always be inseparable concepts and his concern for young men cast into peril and foreign lands shines as brightly as ever.

Whether Billy Bragg is going acoustic or electric, he is always plugged in to the nobility of the human spirit and like all his work, “Mr. Love & Justice” has a tender but principled optimism that helps make it soar.

Best tracks: I Keep Faith, Sing Their Souls Back Home, Mr. Love & Justice, O Freedom, Farm Boy

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