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.
They’re apparent on the new album in “Mid-Century Modern,” where he acknowledges that even his own views remain a work in progress. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers is an act of deference from a guy whose songs have been rallying cries for equality and justice for close to 40 years, but Bragg is self-assured enough to open himself up to new perspectives. “It’s hard to get your bearings in a world that doesn’t care / Positions I took long ago feel comfy as an old armchair,” he sings over a blend of steel guitar and thrumming organ, punctuated by a searing guitar lick in the instrumental breaks. “But 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.”
Bragg issues a gentle challenge of his own on “Pass It On” when he emphasizes the importance of handing down the family stories that help tell us who we are. “Voices fall silent, but memories live on,” he sings, which can be a tricky proposition for people with troubling family histories they’d rather forget. Yet Bragg has never been one to sugarcoat uncomfortable truths. Here, he sounds reflective, singing over somber piano and acoustic guitar, with a chorus of voices joining him on the refrain.
The Million Things That Never Happened is as contemplative an album as Bragg has released. He’s searching for truth over mournful piano on “Lonesome Ocean,” and he’s happy for no discernible reason on the softly lilting “Reflections on the Mirth of Creativity.” But he hasn’t forsaken political commentary. Inspired by the bonkers tale of a small town in New Hampshire where libertarians tried to establish a utopia—in this century, no less—“Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free” is a wry bit of satire that leans gleefully into the unexpected consequences: bears. Specifically, bears that weren’t impressed by human efforts to scare them away. Bragg talk-sings the lyrics over a rustic arrangement of fiddle and guitars as he recounts the libertarians’ efforts to “live free,” without enough of a tax base to even pay for garbage removal. You know who loves rooting through garbage for food? Bears. “If you leave everything to laissez-faire / You may have to wrassle with a bear,” Bragg sings, totally deadpan.
While the song isn’t the focal point of The Million Things That Never Happened, it’s a nice way to punctuate an album by a singer and songwriter who seems determined to keep improving himself, as a musician and also as a person. His latest effort is in many ways subtler and even more subdued than much of his work, but it’s an album that sticks.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.