By Billy Bragg
Everything I don't really want to say about Mr Love and Justice is forced out of me by knowing that the slack and meandering four and half minute first track is also the single from the album. 'I Keep Faith' is like an Eric Clapton slowie but without the benefit of a guitar solo. Is that the manifesto then - music for dozing rather than to be aroused by?
There are distinct changes of mood and tempo to liven things up, such as the flamenco-like, Irish-sounding handclaps that wake us up for track two, 'I Almost Killed You' a song which has a few nice melodic shapes in it, but can't sufficiently fortify a listener who's about to be confronted by 'M for Me', a word-play ditty worthy of Max Bygraves.
After it, life is restored by some Bo Biddley rhythm in 'The Beach Is Free', before a touch of Bob Marleyish keyboard takes us into 'Sing Their Souls Back Home.' This might have been a better choice for a slow single, having more of Bragg's character in it as it considers the condition of various groups of people who are away from their proper homes. It's followed by 'You Make Me Brave', another gentle ballad, this time one of insecurity resolved; while the perfectly listenable 'Something Happened' raises suspicions it was written for a less solid treatment than the moderate rock presented here.
The title track comes in at number eight, and must surely have made it to the shoot-out for the single. Mellowness prevails once more with 'If You Ever Leave Me' - very much the type of couple-song the title suggests. And suddenly, at long last, we're into the good stuff, with the gutsiest number on the album 'O Freedom': eastern percussion and strings lead into narrative verses connected by the refrain "O Freedom what liberties are taken in thy name?" and a final section in commentary form, where Bragg comes across as completely involved in a good tune, words to go with it and the emotions stirred by the use of injustice as a process of law.
As he gets a lot of work out of the word "thy" in the phrase quoted above, he also does it in the next song with the far more commonplace syllable "how" being twisted by the tobacco industry's corporative voice replying to a woman's question at the start of 'The Johnny Carcinogenic Show' . The target may be an easy one but the ironic method of the song's drama isn't a cheap display, and some may think there's a glint of costs in the title. It plays out on a repeated "poverty is toxic" - which deserves to be a proverbial phrase; in fact I expected to find that's what it is, but it brings only a handful of Google results, including one showing it's been around for more than twenty years. And that leaves 'Farm Boy' to bring up the rear, a war song - and a stronger sort of slow number where Bragg's voice works particularly well at a quiet level. It begins with a familiar sounding guitar riff - is it Thin Lizzy? Boomtown Rats? Ah, if only.