Bill Fay’s justly lauded 2012 album Life Is People appeared 41 years after its predecessor. A second coming not quite as long anticipated as the one that Fay himself awaits, but near miraculous even so. That he should return so soon with another album, and a very good one at that, is almost as remarkable and equally welcome.
Whereas Life Is People was a work of variations – stark and poignant one moment, ominous and brooding the next – Who Is The Sender? sets a mood from the off from which it rarely deviates. Subdued, prayerful and reflective, it’s the sort of record that requires close attention yet is too diffident to demand it. As a background listen it drifts past in a mist of piano, organ and strings, but close scrutiny reveals subtle, intricate detailing. What sounds like uilleann pipes join the piano, organ and cello of ‘The Geese Are Flying Westward’. Double bass and electric guitar combine on ‘A Page Incomplete’ before the drums herald a rare gear change, while a string synth graces ‘Bring It On Lord’, the most traditional example of Fay’s self-styled ‘alternative gospel’. It is all meticulously crafted and considered, with only an oddly squashed and shapeless drum sound grating on a few songs. The album’s one real departure is the closing ‘I Hear You Calling (studio reunion)’, reimagined from the second album of the first phase of Fay’s career, Time Of The Last Persecution (1971). Replete with churchy Hammond and female backing vocals it is reminiscent of songs like ‘Caribbean Wind’ and ‘Angelina’ that Dylan inexplicably left off Shot Of Love.
Vocally, not much has changed since 2012, although the now-septuagenarian Fay’s hesitant self-harmonising on ‘Something Else Ahead’ adds a new dimension. Lyrically, his preoccupations remain constant – yearned for redemption, bewildered horror at war and a prosaic nature mysticism that divines depth of meaning in a buzzing bee or a squirrel hoarding nuts. Fay finds an unlikely and almost certainly accidental kinship with rapper Shai Linne in saluting Christian martyr William Tyndale on what might be the album’s best song, ‘Freedom To Read’. This finds Fay standing ruminatively in a garden in London, staring up at a statue of Tyndale and memorialising a man burnt at the stake by a ‘dark religious cult’. This can be read as a microcosm of Fay’s entire career: passing unnoticed through the city where he’s lived all his life, conjuring into being simultaneously odd, quiet and plain speaking insights into subjects beyond the farthest reach of any music trend, a living antidote to self-aggrandising rock hyperbole.
In infrequent interviews, Fay indicates that he never stopped writing through his wilderness decades, a claim borne out by a collection of late ’70s/early ’80s studio recordings released in 2005 as Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow. That Fay should remain faithful to his muse through all those silent years to re-emerge now, blinking and bemused, as one of England’s finest songwriters is a cause for continuing gratitude.
– MARK BREND