This is a departure from Bragg's British agit-punk/folk style. Tooth & Nail is steeped in Americana, largely acoustic, with a very warm, organic sound that fits these songs extremely well. And Bragg's singing is remarkably direct, as he speaks right to the listener, as reflected in the video above for "No One Knows Nothing Anymore".
The production by WYMA favorite Joe Henry is exquisite. Henry likes to work quickly, this record reportedly made in 5 days, and he achieves an immediacy here, especially in the vocals, that brings a power to these songs that transcends decibels.
The first rate musicianship is what we've come to expect from Henry's usual crew:
Jay Bellerose - drums and percussions
Greg Leisz - guitars, mandolin, Dobro, etc.
David Piltch - upright and electric bass
Patrick Warren - piano, organ and keyboards
The overall feel is closer to American folk and country than the blues-jazz feel of Henry's own records, but it's unmistakably a Joe Henry production.
Nearly every song finds a man searching for meaning in mid-life. It's works well and stays with you, much like a collection of Richard Russo or Richard Ford short stories.
The men in these songs come to grips with their failings and ask questions like "How can a man be strong if he can't even lift a telephone and says he's wrong?" ("Swallow My Pride"). And the difficult times are getting to them: "I'm so tightly wound in tension, feel just like a guitar string." ("January Song").
But these men don't give up and do find solace in some basic truths:
A little bit of faith
That's all it really takes
Do unto others as you would have them do to you
("Do Unto Others")
And in love and domestic life:
Don't be expecting me to put up shelves
Or build a garden shed
But I can write a song that tells the world
How much I love you instead
There is even a classic country song in the style of Tom T. Hall or George Jones, "Chasing Rainbows", which begins "The wheels have come off again and the fault is all mine." And speaking of Americana, there's a fine cover of Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," where the subject of the song drifts from town to town, looking for work.
Joe Henry wrote the lyrics for two songs here - "Over You" and "Your Name on My Tongue". Henry is a gifted writer and knows how to tap into the emotion that Bragg was going for on Tooth & Nail. The heartbreak of "Your Name on My Tongue" is palpable and Bragg's vocal here is tremendously effective, this being one of my very favorites here:
But if you are saying, hold on there, what do I want with a Billy Bragg record without some political bite, then don't fret, as you do get "There Will Be A Reckoning", which addresses the issues of the day and has more of a rock feel than the other songs here.
Tooth & Nail is a bold record, a major artist throwing down, taking risks and getting deep into the writing, the songs and the performances. It's way too early to declare that this will top my Best of 2013 list, but it's not going to be easy to get past it.
Artist web page.