It would be all to easy to get swept up in a tidal wave of emotion and just become rapturous simply because this album even exists. And why not? Music writers spend a lot of time trying to be dispassionate and ‘objective’, whatever that can mean when discussing creative arts, but this is near impossible when it comes to a figure such as Bill Fay. Fay made two great masterpieces for Deram in the early 1970s but they were not commercially successful, and Fay’s tenure as a professional musician ended with alarming but commonplace speed. In the interim 40 years, he apparently worked in various menial jobs and continued to write and record music for his own pleasure, whilst his recorded works gradually grew in significance and acclaim.
Fay has been an elusive, enigmatic figure – as his albums were first reissued by the See For Miles label, an urban myth developed that he had literally disappeared. With the patronage of numerous musician fans, including Wilco, David Tibet and Jim O’Rourke, interest in Fay’s ‘70s work grew, he became a cult figure, and a sort-of follow-up, a wonderful album credited to The Bill Fay Group, emerged on the Durtro Juana label.
Fay’s songs are disarmingly simple and direct, but tinged with a distinctively British eccentricity and a quietly defiant spirituality and compassion (Methane River and Be Not So Fearful are essentially platitudes – but they remain some of the most inspiring and life-affirming ever recorded). They were also glossed with extraordinary arrangements. The first album featured sweeping, emotionally powerful orchestrations from British jazz arranger Mike Gibbs, whilst the turbulent, apocalyptic Time Of The Last Persecution featured some searing improvisation from guitarist Ray Russell amongst others.
Whilst Fay did release new music in 2010 – a clutch of skeletal home demos on the collection Still Some Light – Life Is People is his first complete studio album in over 40 years. Coaxed into the studio by American producer Joshua Henry and working with a set of skilled musicians, including Ray Russell and former Mother Earth and occasional Oasis guitarist Matt Deighton, Fay has insisted that all his royalties should be donated to Medicins Sans Frontiers.
It’s a little too early to say for sure, but Life Is People may not quite be the masterpiece so many people dearly want it to be. Musically, it is at times his most conventional work – and the arrangements can veer towards the workmanlike. Sometimes basic rhythm guitar strumming patterns are too far in the foreground at the expense of some of the bolder and more colourful aspect of Fay’s earlier arrangements. This World, which features Jeff Tweedy, is almost upbeat (unusually for Fay) and could have sat comfortably on one of Wilco’s more faithful, conservative albums. The opening There Is A Valley has real drama – but also strives to break free from its four square approach. There is still room for some insightful musicianship, but it tends to emerge in brush strokes on the more textural pieces, rather than in the moments of rock classicism.
That being said, there are moments here so sublime and moving that could only have come from Fay. Whilst a little softer and frailer, the intimate, empathetic sound of his conversational delivery remains instantly recognisable. The Healing Day is a transformative ballad, but one delivered with real grace and subtlety, free from any faux-anthemic manipulation. Even better is the mysterious, haunting, slow-building City Of Dreams (one of a handful of tracks that see the Still Some Light demos fleshed out), 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.
Life Is People actually works best when focused on Fay and his minimal, delicate piano playing. As if to acknowledge the support, he covers Wilco’s Jesus, Etc as a mournful, elegant and deeply affecting piano ballad. The Never Ending Happening has a circular, swirling motion, full of genuine awe at the wonders of nature. The closing tribute to a friend in The Coast No Man Can Tell is deeply moving.
There are moments here of unashamed dignity, compassion and humanity that are very much 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.