LONDON (Reuters) - British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has mellowed over time, and the political activist is happy to focus more on struggles with relationships in his new album than political battles.
Bragg, 55, made his name railing against Britain’s right-wing government in the 1980s, a self-confessed angry young man who was spurred on by the miners’ strike to use music to fight social injustice and then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Fast-forward 30 years and Bragg found himself disillusioned with the record industry and the X-Factor phenomenon of instant fame, wondering if there was still room for an ageing singer who enjoyed performing but had no interest in the charts.
But a few comments on his Twitter feed from people listening to some of his more romantic songs to overcome broken hearts reminded him of the demand for love songs and resulted in “Tooth & Nail”, Bragg’s first album in five years.
“This album became a way of moving to the next thing, of moving on,” Bragg told Reuters in an interview on the eve of a tour of the United States and Canada.
“I felt if I didn’t come back to the recording industry I would be surrendering, saying I am too old, too political.”
His 12th studio album is a far cry from his debut album in 1983, “Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy,” in which the former army recruit from Dagenham, Essex, who left school aged 16, sang about the education system and unemployment.
One song from that album, “A New England”, became a chart hit for Kirsty MacColl and is probably Bragg’s best known song.
His new album, recorded over five days in the home studio of Grammy-winning U.S. producer Joe Henry, was described by the Guardian critic Robin Denselow as Bragg’s “classiest-sounding album to date”.
Instead of politics the album focuses on relationships, with Bragg drawing on his own experience of marriage for over 20 years as he sings about being a hopeless DIY handyman and swallowing your pride.
He sees the album as stylistically a follow-on from “Mermaid Avenue”, the collaborative album he released with American band Wilco in 1998 of unfinished Woody Guthrie songs.
“In any relationship there are ups and downs ... and making a commitment is tough. It is far harder to stay in the boat,” he said. “It’s by examining your own failings and articulating them that you touch people. Music unlocks those feeling.”
Bragg said he was still writing topical songs. After all, 1980s politics was his platform, with albums from that decade titled “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry” and “Workers Playtime” subtitled “Capitalism Is Killing Music”.
But he said the politics of that era were much more clearly defined between right and left and easier to write about.
“Today I have no idea where (Prime Minister) David Cameron stands,” he said. “On one hand he is cutting money for disabled people but at the same time he is arguing for equal marriage. If I am confused then imagine how a 20-year-old feels today.”
Bragg said the move from analogue to digital music had changed the way he handles his political songs and his own business. He now operates as an independent musician, working with independent label Cooking Vinyl to release “Tooth & Nail”.
In recent years he has put topical songs on his website within days of writing for free downloads, such as “Never Buy The Sun” which he wrote after Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World newspaper following its admission of phone hacking.
“But for longer life albums need to be about subjects that are deeper, more emotional, so the main theme of ‘Tooth & Nail’ is the failure to live up to partners’ expectations,” he said.
“Really I don’t see the divide between love songs and political songs as that wide. They are both about humanity.”
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith