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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Mr Love & Justice
Artist: Billy Bragg
At last year's Greenbelt, his second appearance in three years, Billy Bragg aired some of these songs and spoke of "Love and Justice" in a field full of like-minded sojourners. Of course Bragg was quick to dispel any tabloid headlines of Christian conversions on the stage of Europe's biggest Christian Arts Festival so he over-emphasized that the faith he had was in humanity not in any Divine being. It was hard in such a festival setting, late night sing song at the end of a day of seminars where theology underpins social revolution to not see God in the songs. Hearing the album doesn't make it any easier. This is an album packed full of transcendent hopefulness and is nearly impossible not to put the name God on the personality he gives freedom, love, faith and justice. It is hard to avoid the fact that they are the hymns and prayers and proverbs of an atheist with soul.
Mr. Love and Justice could be seen as a record of two sides; romance and Bragg's more traditional socio- political. But in a message to his generation he shows how these things are intrinsically linked and affect each other. The love songs have spiritual and political consequences and the justice can't happen without the love. "Something Happened" asks about love and in very succinct words in the style of an Old Testament Proverb he asks, "Do you know what love is, love is when you willingly lay someone else's priorities above your own, Do you know what lust is, lust is when you actively force your own priority on someone else." This is about how we treat each other in the most intimate relationships but also labels the abuses of capitalism across the world as lustful actions towards humankind. Every action we take each day is love or lust. Preach it Billy!
The spirituality is strong in "I Keep Faith" and though he does say that it is faith in his lover on the campfire negro-spiritual "Sing Their Souls Back Home" he even addresses the Lord in a prayer-like way. Oh to hear Springsteen do a cover of this one with the Seeger Sessions Band! "You Make Me Brave" is about a love that engenders the courage to impact the world. "M For Me" is about commitment and the fight needed for a couple to remain together - "got to love each other everyday instead of hoping it will always stay that way." There is no froth. Even love songs don't need to be silly. Oh for some of these songs to be covered on Pop Idol and give this generation some content on their iPod!
The sound is more accessible than the cold Clash-like riffs of Billy's older stuff though there is an extra solo album version available . Not that those riffs are not absent but there is a lot more texture and Bragg's voice is sounding warmer and the piano and Hammond organ of Small Faces legend Ian McLagan make this a more universal Bragg. Yes, "The Johnny Cacinogenic Show" is a little over contrived and there are other clunking word plays as on the overall helpful "M For Me" but they don't prevent this album being Bragg's most potent statement to our times and he gets closer and closer to the source of all love and justice as well!
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain
at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with
88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of
U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal
Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and he has
a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night
@ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms
of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org . He also tries to spend some time
with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.