Struggle and revolution don’t always happen in the streets. Sometimes, undertaking the inner campaign is the more difficult and worthier battle. Singer/songwriter Billy Bragg returns to Albuquerque—specifically the KiMo—on Sunday, just a few days after the release of his 10th album. Don’t expect a fist-
In 2010, Bragg prepared to embark on the follow-up to 2008's Mr. Love and Justice with a pluckiness to his guitar stroke, his trademark lyrical juxtaposition of irony and honesty and a gentle but firm demand for justice for the little guy. Then, his mother passed away, and the world stopped spinning. I know what that’s like. My father passed away—suddenly—a few years ago. It happened right after my return from a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides, on the west coast of Scotland. I hadn't even unpacked yet. I only got to see my father in death. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. For weeks, my left arm surged intermittently with electricity—like I had a short or something—and I couldn't tell if I was merely receiving these impulses or sending them out. My grief flared within me; I was a human Tesla coil, sparking invisible arcs. I carried on, but it was a long while before I stopped feeling like a part of me had died. I suppose that’s what happens when someone sharing your DNA stops transmitting the code that connects you.
After talking to Bragg for a few minutes, I realized we’d jumped the interviewer-
Created in the aftermath of Bragg’s loss is Tooth & Nail, and it's a powerful process that leads to work this brilliant. This record isn't about this universal and inevitable heartbreak, but it asks questions like: “How do I go on?” “How will I persist?” and “What really matters?” Such inquiries aren't answered with an orchestral anthem; they're navigated delicately in a small boat—around the visible jagged edges of icebergs—knowing the rugged shank below cuts leagues deep into dark water. Sail on or sink.
As ominous as all this sounds, Tooth & Nail isn't a bleak record. It’s just a true one. “Goodbye, Goodbye” is as close to the vest and heartbreaking as its title suggests. Meanwhile, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” lands on solid ground; it unfurls and unfolds like the deserted, two-lane, panoramic highways of a dwindling American West—as only a steel guitar's whine can properly underscore. Henry's full-bodied, lyrical recording and producing style urged Bragg in a vocally expansive direction. At times, it pushes him beyond his comfort zone, and his voice cracks—reaching—trying to fulfill a promise. Bragg's a man of his word and his follow-through delivers an unexpected rawness that's pure and rough-hewn, like barn wood.
“Your Name On My Tongue” acknowledges the past—“Grief was my companion, it pushed me like a sea”—while its waltz time expresses a loving resolve to move forward without forgetting. Expect songs addressing life's big questions. These compositions are epic, without requiring a full orchestra or the structure of an aural crinoline to shore them up. The arrangements give you space to think and time to rest your head against the passenger-side window and watch the prairie roll on. This is an old growth record made from smoky, soulful oak. Think of it as an ancient cask of rich sonic whiskey; every time you take a drink, there’s more in your cup to savor ... if you just wait a minute. Tooth & Nail is a collection of crossroads songs that call on you to choose a path—even if you thought you were already on it.