Growing old doesn’t mean growing soft, necessarily: Established folk and rock talents like Neil Young and Billy Bragg have more than proved this in recent years, churning out virile political statements that far outstrip the efforts of a supposedly more virile generation of younger performers. Young released a critically lauded anti-Bush album, Life in War, in 2006, while Bragg turned out an angry, energetic – if a bit undercooked – political statement with 2002’s England, Half-English. But being politically conscious doesn’t have to mean unrelenting fiery rhetoric or finger-pointing, either. Effective political statement-making can be wrought out of softer stuff, as Bragg is now demonstrating, six years later.
Mr. Love and Justice sounds about as different from England, Half-English as possible: While the latter Bragg album, released in the wake of 9/11, was a less-than-optimistic, critical affair, the former is a fairly optimistic collection of well-crafted love songs that is less politically motivated than most of the inimitable English folk singer’s extensive catalog. It isn’t the artist’s most defining or challenging album, but it’s a consistent effort that may bring a little bit of auditory comfort in these still politically tumultuous times.
The album kicks off with “I Keep Faith,” a beautiful, breezy cut that exemplifies the spirit and tone of Mr. Love and Justice. Bragg’s years – he’s now reached the age of 50 – haven’t dampened the political or social consciousness that have always been characteristic of his folk-meets-punk sound, but they have made his songs veer into increasingly more personal and humanistic territory and feature less of what could be considered straight-up protest songs.
The album then smoothly transitions to Mr. Love and Justice’s best track, the hand-clap-backed “I Almost Killed You,” which also features vocals from fellow English singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, who contributes nobly to the song’s harmonica-driven traditional folk melody. The song’s upbeat and flowing tempo is nothing its title would suggest.
There’s nary a misplaced or dragging moment to be found among the disc’s dozen tight, crisply produced tracks, a true testament to Bragg’s consistent lyric-writing and composition-crafting that have served him so well over the past 20 years and 12-plus albums. Bragg may be sounding a bit more subdued than in the past these days, but it suits him perfectly. Bragg isn’t starting any fires in 2008 – he’s trying to quell them.