Bill Fay isn’t a household name, but an increasing number of musicians, including including Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, David Tibet, Will Sheff and Jim O’Rourke are claiming him as their inspiration. So why has Fay gone virtually unnoticed by the music community at large?
Well, here goes. Bill Fay is 69 years old. He released two records in the early 1970s on Deram (1970′s Bill Fay and 1971′s cult classic Time of the Last Persecution, which featured some of the best British jazz session players of the era), but both flopped and the label dropped him. In the interim 41 years, he has apparently worked in various menial jobs and continued to write and record music for his own pleasure, whilst his recorded works have gradually grown in significance and acclaim
Then, last summer, Fay returned to a London studio for the first time in three decades with American producer Joshua Henry, a lifelong Fay fan who’d barely been alive for 30 years. With a band comprised of younger studio players and Ray Russell and Alan Rushton, who’d joined Fay for Persecution so long ago, they recorded the bulk of Life Is People in a little less than a month
Life Is People doesn’t feel at all like a late-life afterthought from a cult hero. Pointed and urgent but never pushy, Fay’s songs offer pleas for redemption in a world drunk on its promise, coupled with a reassuring contentment for simply having lived this life. Fay chastises the way generations have refused to learn from their history, even as we stare into devices that allegedly offer all the answers we’d ever need
The gorgeous ‘There is a Valley’ is a nature-centric look at humanity as told through whispering trees and sheep-trodden mountainsides. Not unlike some of The Band’s work, it resounds with a timeless classic rock depth, stuck in a past that never really existed in the first place
‘The Big Painter’ is a baritone hymnal that plays like a more Gregorian take on Pink Floyd psychedelia: eerie, soft-spoken, and unsettling while dissonant ephemera stumble around in the background
The record’s two key songs, ‘The Never Ending Happening’ and ‘This World’, swing between Fay’s indignation and optimism. On the former, Fay’s voice hang’s worn but resilient above a simple piano; in these perfect four minutes, he considers death, God, birth, bird song, and war cries as one continuum. He’s happy to have been involved, he admits, to have his tiny narrative shape a much bigger story: “Just to be part of it/ Is astonishing to me”
The record’s pop standout, ‘This World’ springs from the sombre end of ‘The Never Ending Happening’ as if to offer the message that, appreciative as he may be, Fay isn’t done quite yet. He and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy trade the verses and share the chorus, their voices both showing the signs and struggles of survival. As they dole out experiences with blue-collar worries and dismiss the corner drug dealer who offers “an easy way out,” they sound enthused, as if overcoming the worries of the world is its own substantive reward for living
‘The Healing Day’ is a tender Revelation hymn that depends upon the belief that some cosmic help is always on the horizon. “Every battleground/ Is a place for sheep to graze,” Fay sings during one his most eloquent moments. “When it all comes tumbling down/ All the palaces and parades”
Even better is the mysterious, haunting, slow-building City Of Dreams, where there is more space for colour and contrast within the arrangement - sustained vibraphone notes and rustling cymbals building a vivid, hallucinatory mood
‘Be At Peace With Yourself’ does resort to some tricks that it may not really need (hello gospel choir) but it’s hard to resist a melody delivered with such care and clarity
Fay covers Wilco’s ‘Jesus, Etc’ as a wrenching, mournful, elegant and deeply affecting piano ballad while the closing tribute to a friend in ‘The Coast No Man Can Tell’ is also deeply moving
In the past decade, a number of circumstances have revitalized the careers of musicians who, for whatever reason, were swallowed by the record industry and largely ignored by the world. To varying degrees, soul singers like Bettye LaVette, Solomon Burke, and Charles Bradley found ways to turn long flirtations with fame (or abject failure) into real or revived careers with new records on indie imprints
Life Is People and the tale that accompany it are strong enough to do the same for Fay, to at last make his reputation among many match his legacy among few. “There are miracles in the strangest of places,” Fay sings at the start of the title track’s seven-minute ascent, setting the scene for the string of tiny triumphs he sweetly lists
There are moments of unashamed dignity, compassion and humanity that are very welcome in increasingly cynical and austere times. Fay consistently finds beauty in the world and is not afraid to express such sentiments. There are also moments of very real sadness - but a hard-won wisdom and acceptance cuts through. Beautiful, patient and poignant, Life Is People is an expert singer-songwriter album, as dependent upon keen insight as it is upon meticulous arrangement
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