In his two and a half decades carrying the torch of social justice, Billy Bragg has melded the folksy populism of Woody Guthrie with the anger and indignation of The Clash. Both are perfectly encapsulated on his Anti debut. Despite the intense politics behind his songs, Billy has never lost sight of the power of personal relationships to hold us together and bring about the kind of redemption that outstrips even the greatest political movements. Musically, this record combines the loose, Stonesy groove Bragg found working with Wilco on the "Mermaid Ave." sessions, with the best parts of his punk and music hall roots. On his most mature record to date, the title says it all. This deluxe version features an extra CD with Billy performing the entirety of "Mr. Love & Justice" live in the studio - one man with a guitar, just like it was in the beginning.
You'll be hard pressed to find good reason to call Billy Bragg a singer. He was never one back in the day and you can't go teaching old socialists new tricks. His spirited holler was carried through in his heyday by sheer bravado and the fact that his poetic punk monologues had to find their way to your ears somehow. But why, over recent years--and especially on Mr Love and Justice--has he increasingly indulged himself with shameless attempts on melody, you might ask. There's no easy answer, other than the inevitable mellowing of age and indeed battered vocal chords. But as he also drifts away from the fiery Clash and Costello inspirations of his younger self and expands more singularly on his love for the likes of Woody Guthrie and Wilco (with whom he collaborated on interpretations of Guthrie's unfinished songs), his work has developed a real warmth and comfort that it's hard not to be strangely touched by. His backing band, The Blokes, gel spiritedly through a host of country stompers (see "The Beach Is Free") and folk meanderings (see: "If You Ever Leave"). And don't mistake comfort for complacency either. He may be more Mr Love than Mr Justice these days, but he still knows how to rally and on "O Freedom", "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show" and the Hammond-delicious title track he makes his point as poetically as ever. He still really can't sing, mind. --James Berry