Mr Love and Justice
Something of a dual celebration is marked by this release, coinciding as it does with Bragg's fiftieth birthday and him reaching the milestone of twenty-five years as a performer. That's some feat in today's currency - for many different reasons, I can't imagine many of today's pop heroes achieving that kind of longevity. Once again Billy Bragg is joined by his band The Blokes, and perhaps that's where this album falls short. Bragg's always been a decent songwriter, but I've always had the nagging doubt that sometimes he doesn't do his own songs justice - look at Kirsty MacColl's treatment of âA New Englandâ or Dubstar's reworking of âSt Swithin's Dayâ, for example. Both versions (in my mind at least) take the starkness of the originals and build and develop them into something quite beautiful.
With The Blokes in tow, however, it's a bit of a different story. There's something essentially coffee-table about the music on this record. It's very unchallenging. I don't know whether it quite descends into the realms of the cheesy, but it is very formulaic, country-esque soul that feels a bit lazy. There are lyrical highlights, of course - we'd expect that, wouldn't we? He takes on tobacco companies on âThe Johnny Carcinogenic Showâ and New Labour's frightening attacks on civil liberties on âO Freedomâ, and âM For Meâ is certainly clever lyrically (even if it has an unforgiveable trombone solo).
Sadly, not even a guest appearance from Robert Wyatt (a kindred spirit in many ways, but a significantly more inventive one) or producing duties from frequent Fall knob-twiddler Grant Showbiz can rescue this record, I'm afraid. Now more than ever - since young people have entirely lost interest in politics and the very idea of political music seems risible to them - we need people like Billy Bragg to be making better records than this. He's still got a lot to say and a great deal contribute, but this album will convert no-one and excite no-one. There is, apparently, a bonus second disc (which wasn't included in the promo copy I was sent), on which Bragg performs the same set of songs acoustically. To contradict entirely what I wrote in the first paragraph, that might in some ways be a better listen: certainly the songs on display here might benefit from a more stripped-down treatment.
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