On his 13 studio album ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’, Billy Bragg readily admits that, as a 63-year-old white man entering his fifth decade as one of the country’s foremost political singer-songwriters, the so-called ‘culture wars’ can get confusing.
“I’m used to people listening to what I have to say / And I find it hard to think that it might help if I just stepped away,” he sings on the swooning Americana of ‘Mid-Century Modern’. It’s time, he argues, to let others start leading the way. “The kids that pull the statues down, they challenge me to see / The gap between the man I am and the man I wanna be.”
Perhaps that’s the reason that by far its liveliest moment, the stomping closer ‘Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained’, is the only one he’s co-written with his son, 27-year-old Jack Livero. It’s a delight of a song with a rollicking chorus where Bragg’s scattergun couplets tackle the sprawling mess of the internet and its dubious conspiracies, before a gorgeous and melancholy verse looks back with affecting regret on all those hours-turned-days-turned weeks spent tumbling down online rabbit holes.
For the rest of the record, Bragg’s less energised, turning his attention instead towards the human psyche in a time where so many minds have been stretched to breaking point. His music has always had as much empathy as it has had political fire, and it’s the former that dominates here. The album’s musical palette, drawing on the kind of swooning, soulful Americana Bragg explored most prominently on his records with Wilco, is soft, slow and easy. On ‘Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free’, he explores a dunderheaded 2004 plot to turn a remote American town into a government-free Libertarian paradise, approaching full Woody Guthrie territory.
It makes for a record that can occasionally get exasperating in its lack of momentum. ‘Reflections On The Mirth Of Creativity’, based on scraps of Bragg’s old notebooks, which he uncovered in lockdown, is meandering at best, and ‘I Believe In You’ is an entirely unremarkable ballad.
Yet it is also album that leaves plenty of room for nuanced, compassionate songwriting that never loses grip of its sense of empathy. On the title track, Bragg sings about the things we’ve all lost over the last two years: “A hug for the crying, a kiss for the dying”. It’s all but impossible not to relate. In an age of division, ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ is a gentle embrace of what unites us all.
Release date: October 29
Record label: Cooking Vinyl