"January Song," the bluesy leadoff track from veteran English folkie Billy Bragg's first solo outing since 2008's Mr. Love and Justice, begins with the lyric "I'm so tightly wound in tension" and ends with "This is how the world ends," signaling a shift from the stalwart political activism of previous outings to a more internalized dialogue that suggests a subtle re-positioning of the magnifying glass. Bragg has always tempered his political leanings with matters of the heart, and the weepy "Chasing Rainbows" and sad and soulful "Your Name on My Tongue" rank as two of his more intimate offerings, suggesting a recent emotional upheaval that needed a basement in Pasadena, California to find catharsis. Bragg and producer Joe Henry, owner of the aforementioned basement where Tooth & Nail was recorded, make for a solid team, allowing their shared love of rural Americana to run wild and each song enough elbow room to get comfy by sticking to a pantry of few seasonings, which makes the occasional Greg Leisz-supplied Dobro, mandolin, and pedal steel, and the Patrick Warren-provided autoharp and pump organ, feel less like window dressing and more like a crucial component. That's not to say that Tooth & Nail arrives sans boxing gloves, as evidenced by the inclusion of signature Bragg rallying anthems like "Tomorrow's Going to Be a Better Day" and the album's most engaging cut, the rough and tumble "No One Knows Nothing Anymore," but it says something when even the requisite Woody Guthrie number, an appropriately wistful reading of "I Ain't Got No Home," while still steeped in dustbowl civics, eschews straight up politics for weary soul searching.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger