Bill Fay is hardly a household name. In fact, he’s hardly a name at all. And yet, his music has resonated with some rather important musicians. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy claims no records have meant more in his life than Fay’s, and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff calls Fay “rock music’s conscience”. So why has Fay gone virtually unnoticed by the music community at large?
The story goes that Fay 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. Fay began recording Last Persecution‘s follow-up, Tomorrow, Tomorrow & Tomorrow, in the mid-70s, but it was left incomplete until its delayed 2005 release. During the years in between, Fay was virtually invisible.
Though his music slow-builds into rich, seemingly omniscient classic rock balladry that very few artists are — or ever were — capable of producing, it still somehow slipped between the cracks. Fay amalgamated many of his famous contemporaries’ best traits: David Bowie’s quirky confidence, Leonard Cohen’s apprehensive wisdom, Ray Davies’ melodic prowess, and Van Dyke Parks’ knack for arrangement and delivery.
But today, Fay is back with new music. With Life Is People, Fay releases his first official album in just over 40 years; and surprisingly, after all that time, little has changed. Fay’s songs sound as if they’ve simply been hanging out in the ether for all these years, just waiting to be put to tape. Like his back catalog, these compositions have a hard time restricting themselves to any sort of era, style, or genre. Fay’s songs have always sounded idiosyncratic in that way; for instance, “Let All the Other Teddies Know”, Last Persecution’s guitar-squealing conclusion, sounds like a Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood composition written three decades too early.
Life Is People makes a strong argument for why Fay deserves recognition, and not just by those in the know. With top-notch production framing technical and emotive musicianship, Fay recaptures his sound as a lucky few remember it. Backed by guitarist Matt Deighton (Oasis, Paul Weller, Mother Earth), Tim Weller (who’s played drums for everyone from Will Young to Noel Gallagher and Goldfrapp), keyboardist Mikey Rowe (High Flying Birds, Stevie Nicks, etc.), and some of the players from Last Persecution, Fay continues exactly where he left off: still obsessed with, awed, and frustrated by the natural world around him.
The luscious “There is a Valley” is a nature-centric look at humanity as told through whispering trees and sheep-trodden mountainsides. Not unlike The Band’s work, it resounds with a timeless classic rock depth, stuck in a past that never really existed in the first place. Organs coast along a tight groove, leaving room for Fay’s whimsical wisdom to fill the canvas. “The Big Painter” is an Arvo Part-indebted 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 album falters, however, when Fay unnecessarily takes on Wilco’s untouchable “Jesus, etc.” Jeff Tweedy himself makes an appearance on the just barely sappy, power-folk requiem for an idealized past, “This World”, which could have been written by Nick Lowe. “This world’s holding all the keys/ Gotta break it before it breaks me,” Fay says before Tweedy responds, “This world’s got me on my knees/ There was a time when I used to stand tall.”
Life Is People is proof enough that Fay has always stood tall; we just may have been too short to notice him. It seems like time has finally caught up with Fay, or rather, that time is ready to start regretting its negligence. He’s in our sight lines now, and hopefully he’ll stay there a while longer.
Essential Tracks: “Big Painter”, “The Healing Day”, and “City of Dreams”