Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mr. Love & Justice

Billy Bragg is my musical Mecca — an artist I keep coming back to, especially in times of trouble, and whose music has touched me profoundly. In particular, his 1988 CD Workers Playtime is my favourite record ever: an album brimming with emotion, intelligence and terrific (often heartbreaking) pop moments.
     Of course, that’s a lot to live up to, and over his past few records, Billy has disappointed. Mr. Love & Justice, his first studio record in six years, is being touted as a return to his mid-’80s form. And while it is his best album since 1996’s underrated William Bloke, that isn’t saying much.
     There are two complaints that can wound an artist’s integrity: that they’ve either sold out, or gone soft. Billy, the rabid socialist and political agitator, will likely never be accused of selling out. But he’s clearly gone soft. Blame it on his age (he just turned 50), his growing suburbanism (he now lives in coastal England) and that Woody Guthrie tribute record, Mermaid Avenue, which Wilcoed his once edgy one-man-trying-to-be-The-Clash sound. As a fan recently wrote, Billy has become “comfortable and Americanized.” Ouch.
     All is not lost, however. “I Almost Killed You” (as heard on JeffMix2008.03.28) — possibly his best single in (gasp) 15 years — is Billy at his lovelorn best. And I don’t normally go for his political songs, but “O Freedom,” his diatribe on the erosion of human rights in liberty’s name, packs a punch.
     But most of Mr. Love & Justice is Billy Lite. I don’t begrudge Billy for being content; I just don’t have to listen to him anymore. C+
Billy Bragg: O Freedom (mp3)
Billy Bragg: Farm Boy (mp3)

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