A MILLION THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED
The beloved Bard of Barking riffs on the pandemic, self doubt and empathy
Billy Bragg’s brash political anthems delivered a charged soundtrack for protest in the 80s and 90s. He burst solo on the British music scene with tight electric guitar licks and raw vocals delivered in his signature East End London accent. But the tell-it-like-it-is poet also had a tender way with a love song. That vulnerable, human dimension combined with a knack for writing potent, topical pop tunes, launched a four-decade career as one of the foremost political singer-songwriters of his era.
His tenth album, The Million Things That Never Happened, is Bragg’s pandemic lament. Its 12 songs feature lyrics and a country rock sound that owe more to the Americana of former colleagues Wilco than the Clash whose influence marked his early work.
The album’s title track roll calls various pandemic-related missed opportunities (“Two lovers meet in the park / Friends bond over drinks after dark / A walk on a beach / so far out of reach”), while Mid-Century Modern continues Bragg’s bent for honest self-reflection:
“Positions I took long ago feel comfy as an old armchair
But the kids that pull the statues down they challenge me to see
The gap between the man I am and the man I want to be.”
The 63 year-old edition of Billy Bragg is more contemplative and quiet. In the same song he ponders:
“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 calls the album’s first single, the moving I Will Be Your Shield, the “heart and soul of the album.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that empathy is the currency of music — that our job as songwriters is to help people come to terms with their feelings by offering them examples of how others may have dealt with a situation similar to that in which listeners find themselves,” he says. “After what we’ve all been through, the idea of being a shield, physically, emotionally, psychologically, really resonates.”
Vancouverites will be familiar with Bragg for his notable appearance at 1989’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival where he joined Pete Seeger on several stages over the weekend. He’s also made numerous appearances at the Commodore Ballroom. And then there’s the almost unknown song in his catalogue, Ontario, Quebec and Me.
More recently, Bragg threw his support behind a British Columbia New Democratic candidate, Avi Lewis, in September’s federal election. Bragg wrote some new lyrics to his tune Waiting for the Great Leap Forward. Hear the results below.
Bragg revised the lyrics to his song Waiting for the Great Leap Forward in support of New Democrat Avi Lewis in his unsuccessful election bid in the riding of West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country in September’s federal election.
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Excerpts from reviews in three magazines below: American Songwriter, No Depression and Paste. Since the album has just been released there aren’t many reviews yet. However, you can check Metacritic to search for more.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER MAGAZINE
Reaffirming his bragging rights again – Billy’s at his best
Billy Bragg’s stellar career has come a long way since he made his bow as a political provocateur who made music and followed his mantra armed only with an acoustic guitar and a will to revolt.
His early albums—Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (1983); Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (1984); Talking With The Taxman About Poetry (1986); Workers’ Playtime (1988); Don’t Try This At Home (1991); William Bloke (1996); England, Half English (2002); Mr Love & Justice (2008); Tooth & Nail (2013); two efforts with Wilco – the Grammy nominated-Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue Vol II (2000)—and his album with Joe Henry, Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad (2016), not to mention a mini-album Bridges Not Walls (2017) and his most recent release, The Best Of Billy Bragg At The BBC 1983-2019 (2019)—found him a decidedly committed contemporary folk troubadour.
That said, Bragg’s new offering, The Million Things That Never Happened, marks a moderate change in his template, one that finds him adopting a role as a singer/songwriter of considerable insight and intelligence. The majority of the offerings are decidedly mellow and melodic, flush with calm and compassion. Songs such as “Should Have Seen It Coming,” “Mid-Century Modern” and “Reflections on the Mirth of Creativity” sound like instant standards, each enhanced by supple arrangements that put Bragg’s sensitive vocals front and center in the company of an easy caress. There’s both mirth and meaning in many of these tracks, with certain songs—“Pass It On” in particular, which contemplates matters of mortality and family history, the unusually upbeat “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained,” a discussion about the contradictions of social media, and the low-lit treatise of Libertarianism, “The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More,”—delving deeper into specific circumstance.
NO DEPRESSION MAGAZINE
Billy Bragg Returns With Renewed Spirit on The Million Things That Never Happened
By Jon Young / No Depression
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.
PASTE MAGAZINE ONLINE
Billy Bragg Explores Resilience on The Million Things That Never Happened
by Eric R. Danton / Paste
Of course Billy Bragg is singing about resilience on his latest album: in one form or another, he’s been exploring that idea all along. The Million Things That Never Happened is Bragg’s first solo LP since 2013, and a million things have definitely happened since then, including a worldwide surge in political nativism, Black Lives Matter and a growing awareness of police brutality, and a global pandemic. In other words, there has been plenty to test the resilience of a singer and songwriter with Bragg’s outlook.
From the start, the English musician has been singing about overcoming, powering through and seeking connection. He was often more pointed about it early in his career, when he delivered earnest lyrics in a pronounced working-class accent over abrasive solo-electric guitar—see “A New England” or “To Have and Have Not,” both from his 1983 debut. Although time has softened the sharp edges that characterized Bragg as a young man, and the sound of his music has evolved, he has never strayed far from the themes that inspire him.