Bill Fay sings in an immediately affecting voice that has always sounded both tremulous and mature. A Londoner, his is a humanist and profoundly British, almost Blakean vision which is both intimate and cosmic. “Light the candle / Please don’t speak / Open the window / Let some air in,” he sings on “Big Painter, a dream narrative with a moody orchestral setting and lulling choristry; “I’m on the run from the news on the TV / No lessons learned /… / I pour a drink, I need one / I fall asleep and dream /…”
Fay was an obscure figure until the 1998 reissue of two albums first released in the early 70s, but quickly deleted. Life is People is his first first properly crafted studio album in 41 years.
His debut, Bill Fay (1970) was an album of intimate, visionary songs bolstered by big band jazz arrangements courtesy of Mike Gibbs. The Time of the Last Persecution (1971) was leaner, with contributions by a select group of session musicians organised by renowned guitarist Ray Russell. Life is People (on Dead Oceans) picks up the threads from Last Persecution, and belatedly affirms the mature singularity of Fay’s genius.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has been one of Fay’s longstanding champions – Fay’s guest appearances with Wilco, performing his song “Be Not So Fearful” in London in 2007 and 2010, were reportedly his first live appearances in more than 30 years – and he makes a couple of notable contributions to this album.
Both Ray Russell (electric and nylon-string guitar) and Last Persecution drummer Alan Rushton also apparently contribute to certain tracks. A string quartet and a gospel choir also have parts to play. But Fay’s core band is led by guitarist Matt Deighton, and otherwise features keyboardist Mikey Rowe (piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, mellotrons, Hammond), cellist Ian Burdge, bassist Matt Armstrong, and drummer Tim Weller.
Some of these musicians have connections to Noel Gallagher: Deighton replaced him in Oasis in 2000 after a mid-tour ruck, while Rowe is in Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.
I can’t think of two more dissimilar artists than Fey and Gallagher. Fay’s music speaks of credulous faith in terms of hope, reflective maturity and wide-eyed wonder; his religion significantly colours his worldview.
The album’s opening track, “There is a Valley” sounds like the the sort of moder-day evangelism you could hear in church. The title of the beatific “Be at Peace with Yourself” tells its own story. As Fay exhorts us to “keep climbing that hill” to the refrain of a Hammond organ, the entrance of a gospel choir seems almost inevitable.
Sometimes, as on the saccharine “The Healing Day” (“It’ll be OK / On the healing day”) his testifying isn’t to my taste, but the more overt religiosity of “Thank You Lord” (“Thank you for the love you’ve shown me / your son on the cross is ever before me”) somehow moves me. Where I would ordinarily find such sentiments unbearably sanctimonious, in Fey’s humble and compassionate vocal they are touching and rather poignant.
“City of Dreams” is more earthy, but an equally beguiling blend of cosmic wistfulness and urban disconnect (“I’m waiting for the city of God // I’m the street sweeper in your city of dreams”), with glowering atmospherics stippled by liquid guitar and whorls of organ somewhat reminiscent of the soundscapes Daniel Lanois crafted for Bob Dylan circa Time out of Mind. Ditto the blend of strings and guitar/bass/drums on “Empires”. The overall effect could be dolorous but is, rather, stirring and emotive. Wurlitzer adds a further touch of Rolling Stone-era Dylan to “There is a Valley”.
There’s a marked shift uptempo on “This World”, which features Jeff Tweedy as guest vocalist, but otherwise the mood is consistent, and it’s thanks to the remarkably sympathetic arrangements of the band under Deighton’s leadership that the album works so well.
“Jesus etc.” was written by Jeff Tweedy, and first appeared on Wilco’s album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In musical terms its welcome brightness sits nicely (if incongruously) here, but Tweedy’s oblique lyrics (“Our love is all we have // Our love is all of God’s money / Everyone is a burning sun”) somehow ring hollow in Fay’s mouth.
His distinctly personal vision is encapsulated by direct personal statements. Witness: “The never-ending happening of what’s to be and what has been / Just to be a part of it is astonishing to me” (“The Never Ending Happening”); and “Like my old dad said / Life is people / In the space of a human face / There’s infinite variation / It’s a cosmic concerto / and it stirs my soul” (“Cosmic Concerto”).
Those early 70s albums sounded beautifully out of time when I first heard them fourteen years ago. Now, a new offering from Bill Fay sounds just as perfectly incongruous, and equally challenging to a world of shallow values. It couldn’t be more welcome.