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Albums Of The Week: Billy Bragg | The Million Things That Never Happened

The veteran British troubadour’s mellow & melodic 14th album balances the political & the personal as he weighs in on the pandemic, aging, empathy, creativity & more.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The Venn diagram of a good Billy Bragg song shows an overlap between the personal and the political — and that’s reflected in my concern for ‘The gap between the man I think I am and the man I want to be,’ the British singer-songwriter and activist says, quoting the refrain of Mid-Century Modern, a song from his 14th album The Million Things That Never Happened. “I’m conscious of my position as a white middle-aged man — I’m used to people listening to what I have to say. After all this time, I don’t think it hurts to ask if the behaviour that I manifest lives up to my own standards as the man I want to be.

“As a mid-century modern geezer, I’m aware that my notions of personal relationships were formed almost 50 years ago; likewise my politics. To cling to that and imagine that you’ve nothing to learn from younger generations, you’re in danger of becoming a dinosaur. Kids have got new priorities and new ideas. Thatcher’s dead. The world has moved on. I’m trying to respond to the things I’m hearing now, rather than reminding folk of ‘the good old days’.

“I read somewhere that the second-most-googled thing after pornography is ancestry. People want to know where they come from, why they were born, where they were born. You can get facts from the web, but details are priceless and can often only be learned orally from relatives. Yet too many of us rue the fact that we are left to piece together family stories from fragments we recall because we never asked our elders those questions.

“It was always my intention to record a new album in 2021. I’d planned to spend most of 2020 on the road, where I could crank out ideas for new songs in soundchecks and maybe even try a few in the live set. Things didn’t quite work out that way, of course. In the past, it has been purely personal issues that have kept me off the road and I’ve sought to come to terms with those events by writing songs that draw the listener’s attention to my individual experience.

“The manner in which this pandemic has unfolded is something we’ve never faced before — a universal experience that has impinged on all of our lives. When the first lockdown was declared, I filled the space left by cancelled tours with clips and playlists that made me feel connected to my audience. When hopes of a return to normal were thwarted by the second lockdown in late 2020, I struggled to find the motivation that had driven my response to the first.

“Looking for something to focus on, I booked some studio time with Romeo Stodart and Dave Izumi and began pulling songs together for a new album. Twice the dates we booked had to be postponed due to pandemic restrictions, but Romeo and Dave carried on working, creating backing tracks based on the demos I’d sent them. When we were finally able to get together in April this year, they presented me with a different way of making songs, something I found highly engaging after the lost of momentum brought on by the lockdowns. The Million Things That Never Happened isn’t about the pandemic per se, but the highs and lows of what we’ve been through provide the backdrop for the album, as they have done for all our lives over these past two years.

“I like my albums to finish with a stomper. My son Jack helped me out with this one. That’s him playing electric guitar in the video. He’s a pretty good songwriter himself, and when I played him what I had, he said, ‘It’s good but it needs some work.’ I said, ‘Well you go and do it then.’ So he came back and he’d added a middle section and, you know what, he was right. I was really pleased. People have asked if there might be a ‘father and son’ album down the tracks. All I will say is you never know what the future might bring. Ten Mysterious Photos… is about life online, both good and bad. I try not to get sucked down too many wormholes, but it can happen.

“To me, I Will Be Your Shield is 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 listener finds themselves. After what we’ve all been through, the idea of being a shield — physically, emotionally, psychologically — resonated deeply with me.”