Mr. Love & Justice – Billy Bragg
It’s like running into an old friend who you haven’t seen for a long time. The years melt away. The same comfort zone of familiar subject matter and inside jokes emerges during an ongoing conversation. Billy Bragg returns after a six-year absence with a new studio effort. Mr. Love & Justice is his latest variation of his constant themes of life, love and politics. Before you have a chance to be turned off by the political aspect of Bragg’s work, you should know that to him the worlds of governments, romance and society collide into a glaring yet compassionate look at the human condition.
Sure, he was more preachy as a younger man armed with an electric guitar, a melody and catchy chorus but even then Bragg sensed that talking about power for the people all day long would get old if he didn’t allow his emotional softie side to appear every so often. But this review isn’t meant to dwell on his past. You want to do that, and I recommend it, spend the money and get one or both of his box sets that collect his previous work. Let’s return to the now of 2008. And it’s time for Mr. Love & Justice to spread its subversive message. As you can tell by the title, he hasn’t changed much in his choice of subjects, but that’s no problem since Bragg’s able to mine new nuggets of material 25 years after his debut EP, Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy.
Using his more than capable back up band, the Blokes, and a little guest work from Ian MacLagan (The Faces), he nimbly moves through his old standbys of rock and Motown along with Gypsy folk, rockabilly and something akin to a New Orleans-styled lullaby. Now, a husband and father, his feelings about the world remain the same but with linkage to his life, his approach and priorities have changed. Maturity has set in musically and lyrically. It finds him at a more settled pace with material that shows added shades and depth, wherein the opening number “I Keep Faith” can be as much a pledge to his family as it is to himself and his fans and his activist ways. “Sing Their Souls Back Home” works in this same manner, evoking the desire for the return of everything from soldiers in danger on some foreign land to displaced New Orleans residents to wayward family members. Always a clever wordsmith, he has a bit of fun on “I Almost Killed You,” which in its full line reading finishes with “With My Love,” as an apology for his overbearing, worried ways, and, later, on “M For Me.”
The political fare is less subtle near the end. A trio of songs — “O Freedom,” “The Johnny Carcinogenic Show” and “Farm Boy” makes his points in a demonstrative yet dramatic way, particularly with the solemn look at the loss of civil liberties on “O Freedom” and the first person account of a boy wanting to get outta town on “Farm Boy. The latter tune’s has added resonance because Bragg isn’t just some entertainer who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He served in a tank division in the British Army. But, its placement to finish the album doesn’t give Mr. Love & Justice the proper send off it deserves. Replace it with “Sing Their Souls Back Home” and you have a fitting end to an album that goes beyond politics to deftly chronicling the human factor.