Despite his reputation as a left-wing firebrand, Billy Bragg has always been more of a pure folk singer, one who sings about the world around him and the life he’s leading at that particular time. Indeed, his best moments have often had nothing to do with politics, such as his 1988 album, Workers Playtime, which remains one of the best break-up albums of our time.
For The Million Things That Never Happened, Bragg has documented the troubles of the last couple of years. That, of course, includes the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, but he also takes in Trump’s presidency, the so-called ‘culture wars’ and some more personal love songs.
Those expecting the furious punk-folk thrash of early Bragg may well be disappointed. This is more in the vein of Bragg’s collaboration with Wilco some years ago – languid, slightly woozy and pretty relaxing. The one ‘stomp’ comes with the final track, Ten Mysterious Photos That Cannot Be Explained, which was co-written with his son, Jack Valero. Otherwise, producers Romeo Stodart (of The Magic Numbers fame) and Dave Lynch coat these songs in a reflective, hazy glow.
Obviously, the events of the last 18 months hang heavy. Good Days And Bad Days is the perfect description of those early days of lockdown life, desperately searching for something to make the days go quicker (such as “Reading all the words on the tins on the shelf”) and pleading for “Something I can fix my eyes on, a hint of hope out on the far horizon”.
Mid-Century Modern sees Bragg turn his critical eye back onto himself, comparing his 60-something self with today’s generation: “The kids who pulled the statues down, they challenged me to see the gap between the man I am, and the man I want to be.” It works as a sort of ‘passing of the torch’ song, but Bragg’s self-criticism gives it an added edge.
As ever with Bragg, there’s plenty of humour to be found on the album, despite the dark material. Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free is an almost jaunty little hoedown, telling the story of a bunch of libertarians who set up their own tax-free utopia, which doesn’t quite go to plan when nobody empties the bins, and bears suddenly appear. Only Bragg could come up with a line like “If you leave everything to laissez-faire, you may have to wrestle with a bear”, leaving you thinking and laughing.
Age has matured Bragg’s voice, no longer the much-maligned object of ridicule that it was in his 20s and 30s. Instead, he’s become a more rounded, richer singer, making songs like the beautiful I Will Be Your Shield (written for his partner who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the time) all the more moving.
It’s quite something for an artist of Bragg’s age and standing to still remain important and vital but, most of the time on this album, that’s exactly how he sounds. He has the unerring knack to document events in a crystal clear fashion, whether it be The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More’s warning of fascism (“If history teaches us one thing, never trust a man who would be king”) or the more personal plea for connections through the generations that is Pass It On.
Nearly 40 years since his debut album, it’s heartening that Billy Bragg is still here, still documenting this often mystifying world in his own inimitable fashion.