Billy Bragg

Mr. Love & Justice

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It's both significant and troubling that Billy Bragg's best albums since releasing Talking with the Taxman About Poetry in 1986 were the two Mermaid Avenue volumes, in which Bragg set Woody Guthrie's unpublished lyrics to new music with Wilco serving as his collaborators and backing band, suggesting that this former one-man band suddenly needed plenty of help to communicate with his audience. Bragg sounded confident and all but unbeatable on his first few albums in the '80s, but political and creative uncertainty have dominated much of his work since then. Which is why Mr. Love & Justice is a pleasant and encouraging surprise -- while hardly perfect, it's easily Bragg's best and most consistent solo effort since Don't Try This at Home, and finds him coming to terms with maturity and the changing face of the world, two bugaboos that have been dogging his muse for some time. Mr. Love & Justice lacks a portion of the piss and vinegar of Bragg's earliest sides, but on these recordings he's learned to communicate with a soulful conviction that merges passion with a simple and unforced sincerity, and while Bragg has sung with greater force, he's rarely communicated as well in the studio as he does here. Bragg also sounds more comfortable with his backing band than he has since working with Wilco; having recorded and toured with the Blokes for several years, the musicians have had the opportunity to gain a rapport with one another, and the give and take between Bragg and his partners is warm and easy, and gives the material just the right lift. And while Billy Bragg isn't mounting as many soapboxes on Mr. Love & Justice as you might expect, "Sing Their Souls Back Home" and "Farm Boy" are compassionate and well-crafted meditations on the wake of the Iraq War, "O Freedom" is a powerful tale of vanishing civil liberties, "I Nearly Killed You" and "Something Happened" are the sort of reflections on love that come from years of dealing with the nuts and bolts of human relationships, and "I Keep Faith" is a wary but moving meditation on the courage needed to stand one's ground in an age of personal and political turmoil. (Oddly, the number where Bragg most gets his dander up is the rather obvious "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show" -- Billy, doesn't everyone know tobacco is bad for you by now?) The scope of Mr. Love & Justice is often modest, but it speaks with grace, wisdom, and heart, and finds Billy Bragg a bit older, a bit wiser, and still committed to fighting the good fight; it's a return to form, a step forward, and a potent reminder of why Bragg's music still matters.

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