Tooth & Nail
Billy Bragg is like a fine wine, enriching his composition and complexity with each passing year. A man who could comfortably call it quits on the laurels of a career that has already influenced so many, the British folk veteran continues to strap on his guitar and spread his insight. His latest offering, Tooth & Nail comes five years after the ambitious Mr. Love & Justice, and sees Bragg return to his more intimate roots.
Those expecting a product meeting the grandeur of Mr. Love & Justice might come across initially disappointed, but should find early forgiveness upon hearing the time and care that Bragg irrefutably wields. Working with a minimalist’s mindset, Bragg deploys his instruments sparingly, achieving a more meaningful connection when calling on his backing band or piano keys. Aided by a single tambourine and gently strummed guitar, opener “January Song” exemplifies the strength of Bragg’s words. “I’m so tightly wound in tension, I feel just like a guitar string, waiting to reveal emotions, touch me and you’ll hear me sing” croons Bragg poetically, his slow instrumental growth careful to not overshadow his eloquence. A track later on “No One Knows Anything Anymore” he sneaks in a catchy tune with the aid of more distinct guitar and those unmistakably emotive piano strokes. Contemplating the answers to the universe, Bragg explores the Large Hadron Collider’s search for the “God” particle and imagines a world in which “no one knows nothing anymore.”
Bragg’s dry humour surfaces throughout the disc, most overt in the witty “Handyman Blues.” Accepting his ineptitude with a hammer and grace with a guitar, this tangy piece plays like an apology for not being handy around the house, looking to his identity as a songwriter and slyly suggesting that he can “find a way to make my poetry to make a roof over our head.”
A mid-album series of ballads run at one of Bragg’s most dawdling tempos, and taken together might seem a tad underwhelming. A few like “I Ain’t Got No Home” burn slow, filling the gaps between more lively songs like “Do Unto Others,” but others like “Swallow My Pride” serve their purpose well. Tooth & Nail holds some of Bragg’s most personal cuts, and to that end it’s hard to accuse even the weaker songs of being filler. More likely, Bragg has chosen his songs to compliment each other. So when the album’s sole stadium rock song and toe tapping standout “There Will Be A Reckoning” emerges from the midnight oil, all is forgiven and Bragg’s roadmap couldn’t be more the work of a master.
A few years back, countryman and popular folk-rock soloist Frank Turner commented in an interview about having Billy Bragg as an opener for a festival that Turner was headlining. While the interviewer implied that Turner had surpassed Bragg, Turner’s humble response praised Bragg as a living legend, and that he was honoured that Bragg would do such a personal favour. Tooth & Nail showcases every reason for Turner’s gratitude. Fast approaching sixty, Billy Bragg remains a goal for songwriters following in his footsteps, remaining much more than a legacy act.