Mr Love & Justice (Dlx) Deluxe Edition, Import
You'll be hard pressed to find good reason to call Billy Bragg a singer. He was never one back in the day and you can't go teaching old socialists new tricks. His spirited holler was carried through in his heyday by sheer bravado and the fact that his poetic punk monologues had to find their way to your ears somehow. But why, over recent years--and especially on Mr Love and Justice--has he increasingly indulged himself with shameless attempts on melody, you might ask. There's no easy answer, other than the inevitable mellowing of age and indeed battered vocal chords. But as he also drifts away from the fiery Clash and Costello inspirations of his younger self and expands more singularly on his love for the likes of Woody Guthrie and Wilco (with whom he collaborated on interpretations of Guthrie's unfinished songs), his work has developed a real warmth and comfort that it's hard not to be strangely touched by. His backing band, The Blokes, gel spiritedly through a host of country stompers (see "The Beach Is Free") and folk meanderings (see: "If You Ever Leave"). And don't mistake comfort for complacency either. He may be more Mr Love than Mr Justice these days, but he still knows how to rally and on "O Freedom", "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show" and the Hammond-delicious title track he makes his point as poetically as ever. He still really can't sing, mind. --James Berry
Not only is the album well-balanced between romantic and protest songs - making for an apt title - but the distinction between the two genres are even blurred within the songs. For instance the song "Something Happened" contains a polemic bit of wisdom concerning the definition of love and lust, while "Sing Their Souls Back Home" and "Farm Boy" focus on humantic, personal concerns as a reason for ending a war. Significantly, Mr. Bragg doesn't specify which war, which insures their continuing relevance. (Hopefully there will never be a need for such relevance ever again.)
The deluxe version is worth the extra money, especially if you're a fan of his earlier work. "I Almost Killed You" sounds like it could be an outtake from the "Back To Basics" collection. There is a real distinction between the two different versions of the songs, and I play both equally as often.
This is a warm, wonderful collection of modern folk songs, and would be a welcome addition to the collection of any and all thoughtful and socially-conscious people.
Taken on its own, this is a great recording. It somehow manages to comfortably mix the vibe of early Van Morrison (think Astral Weeks and Moondance), the songwriting chops of Ray Davies, and the social awareness and fun of Woodie Guthrie (though that last one shouldn't surprise anybody).
Of interest is the fact that Bragg spends more time quietly singing (or intoning, depending on who you ask) than he does barking out manifestos. While some may see this as a sign of softening with age, it actually speaks volumes about the truth behind just about every righteous lyric he's belted out to this point. Here he proves that you don't need to be angry to feel strongly about this stuff.
Highlights here include "M for Me," which is just a phenomenal lyric; and "Sing Their Souls Back Home," which is probably one of the few songs of the last several years that actually made me want to sing along on first hearing it.
Though the album proper stands well enough on its own, there's an interesting sense you get when you play both the band versions and the solo versions back to back. It's as if the first disc is the political rally, the party, or just a friendly musical gathering in the back yard. Then, for the second, it's the quiet, introspective night alone. Taken all together, it's a very powerful listening experience.
While I wouldn't necessarily compare the solo versions to his early recordings (there's no comparing these well-worn sounding tunes to the energy of all that came before), it's nice to get a portrait of the artist as an old(er) man and see that you can still recognize his past in his present. It's a nice full-circle kind of feeling.
Some may hate it, but when judged on its own merits, this is a very solid collection of songs and well worth having in both incarnations!
And here at 50 Bill's turned in a collection of songs that take him further along the path of maturity (yeccchh, sorry Bill) that to my ears at least began with some of the songs on "William Bloke" about turning from red to blue (he hasn't, I haven't) and standing in the garden watching for satellites.
It's a thing of beauty, and bless'im, the bite's still there too. Keep on keeping the faith, Bill.