Actually, two Billy Braggs for the price of one – not so much a double album, as a double-disked album, each platter featuring the same 12 songs, the only difference being the split between the band and solo version. A Bragg to fit all moods, you might say – and a gesture that is pleasingly generous, as well.
Bragg, 50 this year, is a songwriter who’s matured splendidly. The firebrand guitarist, fresh out of the British Army and belting out incendiary songs to change the world, can still be glimpsed on Mr Love & Justice. Indeed, the title could even be read as a self-deferential dig. Bragg tempers the unfashionable humanity of his songs with a sad acknowledgement of current realities. ‘O freedom! What liberties are taken in your name,’ runs the sardonic refrain of ‘O Freedom’ – a lyric that summons visions of Guantánamo as well as the terrorists whose actions abuse the gifts of freedom. You would expect that on an album that offered both band and solo mixes of the same songs, the band versions would be the more boisterous. Not so. The solo disc is characterized by Bragg’s choppy, fuzzed guitar and a voice in vigorous mode. Only on the acapella ‘I Almost Killed You’ does a vulnerability appear.
Featuring Bragg’s back-up band, the Blokes, and a host of mandolins, bouzoukis and keyboards, the other mix isn’t exactly sedate either. ‘The Beach Is Free’ and ‘Sing Their Souls Back Home’ and, with Robert Wyatt, ‘I Keep Faith’ are zappy, bluesy numbers that are elevated by their expansive spirit to new highs.