Bragg returns with a remarkable album on the human cost of the pandemic while still finding time to protest.
Billy Bragg has certainly moved on from his days as a one-man band, building up an impressive body of work which has seen him move on from agitprop rock to collaborations with Wilco and Joe Henry which dove headlong into American themes, be it the legacy of Woody Guthrie or the romanticism of their railroads. ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’, his first solo album since 2013, finds him quite comfortably ensconced in what might be termed his happy space, the politics are all present and correct and the songs range across American soul, folk and country styles. In addition, there’s a fine sense of introspection and reflection – Bragg, now in his sixties, looking back.
It’s not apparent on listening but ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ is a pandemic album. Bragg wrote the songs in lockdown (and some of the songs reflect this) and then sent his recordings to producers, Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers and Dave Izumi, who then worked their magic. And magic it is when one hears the glorious murmurings of ‘I Will be Your Shield’, a song which Bragg says is the heart and soul of the album. It certainly nails the bewilderment and loneliness of lockdown, especially for those who depended on the kindness and empathy of others to get them through.
Lockdown influenced several of the songs. ‘Lonesome Ocean’ is a keyboard-led ballad which finds Bragg adrift, buoyed only by some fine piano and organ which hark back to the sounds of Muscle Shoals. Meanwhile ‘Good Days And Bad Days’ opens with Bragg, unadorned, in his studio, sounding quite wearied by it all before Stodart and Izumi start to swathe the song in tentative piano and mellow waves of mellotron. The title song is a true lament for these times, amplified with weeping violin, which notes all of all those family celebrations and commiserations which were denied to us amidst this modern pestilence – birth, weddings and death – all consigned to the dumpster.
Amidst this, Bragg remains a barb in the side of the establishment. ‘Freedom Don’t Come Free’ is a jaunty bluegrass number which references a bunch of Ayn Rand libertarians’ attempts to create a utopian community, an attempt which ended in a killer bear invasion. Much more subtle in delivery, the smooth southern soulful ‘The Buck Don’t Stop Here No More’ is like a mini Ted talk as Bragg nails the hypocrisy of populist leaders. Pertaining to himself, ‘Mid-Century Modern’ finds Bragg acknowledging that he is still in the process of catching up with the modern concerns and protests of a younger generation – Thatcher might be gone but now black Lives matter. This notion is pursued in the touching, gospel-like hymnal of ‘Pass It On’ where Bragg impresses on us the importance of teaching the children, handing on the baton as it were. Appropriately enough then that the album closes with a co-write with Bragg’s son, Jack. Bragg says he likes to end his album with a stomper and on ‘Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained’ he goes back to his Bard Of Barking Days, his accent accentuated, on a song which comes across like an Americana equivalent of Steve Marriott’s cockney glory days in The Small Faces. It’s a fabulous close to what may be Bragg’s best album so far. If he’s not careful, he might be in the running to be considered as a National Treasure.
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