A deft lyricist with a warm and compassionate voice, 51-year-old Billy Bragg has never been one to duck the inevitability of romance or the importance of protest.
"I'm trying to provide people with different perspectives on things, but not just one particular thing," he says by phone. "The people that I worry about are the people who don't listen to it at all because of the politics. The people who dismiss me because of my politics, I find that really frustrating. It's one of those things where the alternative is to turn down the politics and I really can't do that."
Being pigeonholed as a left-wing singer-songwriter, a reincarnated Phil Ochs, isn't easy for Bragg, but like the work of Ochs, once you scratch the surface, beauty emerges. "It's what I'm known for," Bragg says. "It's what goes before me, so if you don't want to listen to politics, you're not going to get far enough to hear 'Greetings to the New Brunette' or anything like that."
Bragg's latest album, Mr. Love & Justice, is on the Epitaph subsidiary ANTI-. Many of the album's songs emerged after the writing of Bragg's first book, The Progressive Patriot, which he describes as a "polemic argument." Delivering the manuscript was a huge relief for Bragg, and the subject of the songs that he wrote in the wake of that was clear. "When I first looked at the first clutch of songs, first half-dozen songs I wrote, they were nearly all love songs," he says. "I had to accept that because that's what needed to come out."
The album is aptly named: Bragg's songs bear the double-edged sword of protest and romance. Depending on what kind of mood you're in when listening, a track called "I Keep The Faith" could be a radical call to arms or an affirmation of love between two people.
When it comes to songs about love or politics, it isn't an either-or situation for Bragg. "Most people's relationships are shaped by economics---they prescribe the relationship you can have. There's a line I have in a song, 'Valentine's Day is Over': 'Brutality and the economy are related, now I understand.' I have always recognized that."