There hasn’t been enough new music from Britain’s Billy Bragg lately. In 2017, he addressed current events with his usual plainspoken eloquence on the bracing EP Bridges Not Walls, though no album followed (apart from a 2019 collection of mostly old BBC performances). Given the tenor of these insane times, it would’ve been nice to have more of his pointed wit and perceptive empathy to help quell despair.
Bragg resurfaced last year with “Can’t Be There Today,” a moving song about the pain of necessary social distancing that underscored his gift for poignant observation free of cheap sentimentality. Now, he’s made a full-fledged return with The Million Things That Never Happened, an invigorating set spotlighting Bragg’s signature fusion of the personal and political. Running the gamut from piercing social commentary to uncomfortably intimate dispatches of an anguished heart, it finds this reliable voice of common sense in peak form.
Given his left-leaning activism and roots in punk-folk — he emerged in the ’80s during Margaret Thatcher’s draconian reign — it’s always been tempting to see Bragg as a soapbox-ready heir to Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. While the tradition of the troublemaking troubadour is part of the man’s identity, such a lazy label fails to recognize how seriously musical his work can be. For all the engaging everyman vibe of his voice, Bragg is a deceptively fine pop singer when the situation allows; check out the new track “I Believe in You” for proof.
A satisfying reminder of Bragg’s considerable range, The Million Things That Never Happened features savvy support from Romeo Stodart (of the underrated band The Magic Numbers) and Dave Izumi, who produce and play an array of instruments, including guitars and all sorts of keyboards, from Hammond organ and piano to subtle Moog and Mellotron. The result is an earthy yet understated sound — not far from Nick Lowe’s later efforts — that could have emanated from Memphis or Muscle Shoals rather than Eastbourne.
Bragg hasn’t lost his knack for topical zingers. The jaunty “Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free,” complete with fiddle and banjo, spins a cautionary yarn about libertarians run amuck in a small town. Banning “all the rules and regulations” and leaving everyone “to fend for themselves,” the authorities produce chaos amid “the stale smell of indifference.” On a sorrowful note, “The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More” surveys the wreckage of right-wing Christian intolerance, asking, “With their God and their guns what are they fighting for? / An all-American sharia law?”
Pivoting from macro to micro, Bragg aches for relief from paralyzing depression in the chilling “Good Days and Bad Days,” wondering, “How long can this emptiness last?” He renders the other extreme as vividly on “The Mirth of Creativity,” a sun-dappled account of waking up feeling fresh and new, noting joyously, “I’ve got nothing to do but smile.”
Bragg punctures his own self-importance in the toe-tapping melodrama “Mid-Century Modern,” admitting, “I’m used to people listening to what I have to say,” while realizing, “The kids that pull down statues they challenge me to see / The gap between the man I am and the man I want to be.” Few other musicians would dare to publicly engage in such honest soul-searching.
Bragg calls “I Will Be Your Shield” the album’s “heart and soul.” This lovely ballad is a simple reaffirmation of the need to care for others, a sentiment that has special relevance now, of course. But each track on The Million Things That Never Happened recharges the spirit in its own way, making this a welcome balm for strange days.