You know what you’re getting with Billy Bragg. Left-leaning political polemic, angry rants about social injustice, aggrieved defiance.
Even the title of his first studio set in five years suggests the strife within. At the age of 56, Barking Billy is still fighting tooth and nail...
All of which just goes to show how wrong you can be, how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or succumb to stereotype.
Because Tooth And Nail is musically mellow, a laidback album which largely steers clear of headline politics, instead visiting the small but important decisions we all make.
Rather than manning the barricades Les Misérables style, Bragg goes back to basics, charting love, loss, relationships and regret, all set in sepia Americana sympathetically produced by Grammy winner Joe Henry.
Recorded in just five days, and with a stellar line-up including Greg Leisz (Bon Iver), Patrick Warren (Lana Del Rey), Jay Bellerose (Regina Spektor) and David Piltch (Ramblin’ Jack Eliot), it’s an ear-opening revelation.
Because Bragg has rarely sung better, and the gently reflective songs are country confessional rather than the stuff of rock and roll rebellion.
Handyman’s Blues, a wry smile of a song, is an acoustic blues listing his domestic failings, the inability to change a fuse or put up shelves – a plea for understanding.
Swallow My Pride, with gorgeous guitar from Leisz, is as soulful as anything Otis Redding ever did, without all the fuss. Chasing Rainbows, on the other hand, is unashamedly country with pedal steel swoon.
Album closer Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day is, on the surface, the most optimistic Bragg has been in years, light at the end of the tunnel.
But it’s two other tracks that lie at the heart of the matter. The first is a cover of Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home, a Depression era lament which remains relevant today.
The second is There Will Be A Reckoning, a Steve Earle-styled rocker in which there’s a flash of that trademark anger as he addresses the plight of the 21st century working man.
Yet even here there’s a measure of hope, albeit an elusive quarry, as he lambasts peddlers of hate and politicians in the same breath.
Billy Bragg plays an intimate gig at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on June 2. It won’t be much ado about nothing.