Tooth & Nail is Billy Bragg’s 15th album in 30 years, and it’s the first—as his press materials are quick to point out—since his 1983 debut Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy to be recorded live, with no overdubs. But beyond that similarity, it couldn’t really be much more different, and it can be difficult to reconcile the relaxed-into-middle-age Bragg with the fiery protest singer he once was. The transformation can almost be pinpointed to a single lyric, from 1996’s “Upfield”: “I’ve got a socialism of the heart.” Before that, Bragg had a socialism of the everything, and his lyrics, both personal and political, could inspire shivers. Ever since—and that includes his two excellent, acclaimed Mermaid Avenue albums made with Wilco—he’s always seemed a bit too comfortable.
In spite of its title, Tooth & Nail sounds like a cozy old rocking chair of an album, full of session players, slide guitar, and a songwriter softened by age. There’s no point in blaming Bragg for that: He still sounds great, and his lyrics can be touching and poignant, but they’re now so rarely pointed. It’s not that he’s left politics behind completely, but a song like “No One Knows Nothing Anymore,” with its meandering piano and slide guitar, feels more like resignation than a call to action. It’s pretty, but its punches don’t land. “There Will Be A Reckoning” does a bit better, managing to rile Bragg up at least a bit.
But nowadays he might be better just sticking to pretty little love songs, because he still has a great grasp of a lover’s soul: “Swallow My Pride” and “Handyman Blues” are simple and pretty in exactly the right ways—and he sounds more confident singing them than he does the more strident stuff. Bragg has pretty much accepted the fact that he’s no longer an angry young man, but it’s difficult not to hope for that young man’s fire every time he puts out a record. There’s always that other live-to-tape album to scratch that itch.