Over a 30-year career, Billy Bragg has solidified his reputation as a left-wing activist and political singer-songwriter, never shying from a hot topic or a fiery rant. His new album, "Tooth & Nail", is a surprisingly more subdued collection, embracing a lush Americana sound in collaboration with producer and alt-country singer Joe Henry.
The album balances political numbers with relationship songs. "Over You" is a smoldering bluesy tune, while "Swallow My Pride" captures a bruised lover's spirit. As for the more political numbers, "There Will Be a Reckoning" finds Bragg wailing on the choruses between mellower verses, and he looks for hope on "Tomorrow's Going to Be a Better Day".
The album takes a heartbreaking turn with a cover of Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home", with Bragg's voice conveying a weariness and sorrow that wasn't in the bouncier, original version.
But Bragg's quieter approach doesn't always work. "Do Unto Others" packages the Golden Rule into a swaying rhythm that sounds like a Sunday school singalong, and on "No One Knows Nothing Anymore", he almost sounds like he's giving up.
Still, "Tooth & Nail" shows that Bragg still has a lot to say; he's just not quite as loud about it.
-- Catherine P. Lewis