Billy Bragg’s career is defined by a dichotomy. He is best known as one of the last surviving examples of the protest singer, the spirit of Woody Guthrie reincarnated in an Essex punk rocker (a reputation cemented further by Bragg’s curation of Guthrie’s legacy in the company of Wilco on the terrific Mermaid Avenue albums). But Bragg has written at least as many love songs as he has political jeremiads. Tooth & Nail, Bragg has admitted, is an effort at reminding his listeners, and himself, of his facility on this front.
Tooth & Nail is not without political content: Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” was too timely a cover to pass up, its line “The gambling man is rich/ While the working man is poor” an astute a summary of 21st-century economic reality as might be imagined. And Bragg can’t quiet himself:¬ “There Will Be A Reckoning” seethes with vengeful portent, and “No Knows Nothing Anymore” is a fretful meditation on the dissolution of certainties. But most of Tooth & Nail is concerned with relationships between individuals, rather than between countries or classes.
Bragg was clearly determined not to overthink matters: The album was recorded in just five days at producer Joe Henry’s home studio. Measured against the rest of Bragg’s canon, it is most similar in tone and texture to 1988′s Workers Playtime, which contained such love/unlove songs as “She’s Got A New Spell” and “The Price I Pay.” Tooth & Nail contains much that reaches those standards, especially the rueful countryish ballads “Chasing Rainbows” and “Over You.” Not for the first time, Bragg distils the eternally infuriating truth that the conflicts of lovers make the ructions of competing nations and ideologies look relatively uncomplicated.