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Billy Bragg: Mr. Love & Justice

There's probably no more succinct way to describe English folk-punk Billy Bragg than with the title of his latest album, Mr. Love & Justice. His songwriting has always been marked by two major themes: outspoken leftist protest songs, and tender love songs, both seasoned with intelligence, wit, and simple compassion. In his younger days, Bragg favored a loud, distortion-heavy guitar as his sole accompaniment, which both fit his image as a lefty firebrand and helped strip his songs to their bare essence. Since 1988's Workers Playtime, he's embraced a gentler, warmer, and fuller sound that is still the dominant mode on Mr. Love & Justice, reflecting Bragg's mellower nature. (There's also a deluxe double-CD version of Love that features solo-electric takes on the songs, a mode that's still an essential part of his live set.) Only his third album of new material in 12 years, Love finds Bragg standing on more solid ground than 2002's uneven England, Half English. He captures Woody Guthrie's puckish humor on "The Beach Is Free," a breezy celebration of the pleasures in life that aren't yet under corporate ownership, and he displays his gift for combining earnestness and melody on "Sing Their Souls Back Home." While he doesn't scale the heights he achieved on earlier albums, at least the mountains are visible from here.


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