Bill Fay's new album: Life Is People

20:30, Sep 16 2012

I got on to Bill Fay through Wilco. He'd made a couple of albums in the early 1970s, folksy jazzy, introspective and lovely. He sat in my collection alongside Tim Buckley and Terry Callier, he was the Nick Drake that never quite got the afterlife-push; the new discovery. But then, Fay was (and still is) alive...

Jeff Tweedy started talking up his albums and so did Nick Cave. Next thing the albums were reissued - and if you haven't heard it already you should head for 1971's Time of the Last Persecution. It's a bit like when you first hear Rodriguez or Nick Drake or Fred Neil or The Blue Nile. It's something special; something that is both of its time and transcendent of that time - given that (for most people) it's being heard outside of its original context/time/place. Fay's albums are bedsit-gems, the sort of record you want to live with, almost exclusively. There's the feeling of just enough grit and determination, there's substance and warmth and each record feels like a new friend. More is revealed with time but there's that instant spark to catch you.

In recent years there have been reissues and compilations but Life Is People is Bill Fay's first new studio album in more than 40 years.

It's the latest record I've fallen in love with.

Fay's worldview might bum you out, here's a man approaching the end of his life - in that, in song, he's contemplating mortality. But listen to the hope, the beauty expressed. In the album's most beautiful and poignant song (for me), The Neverending Happening, he sings of how it is "astonishing" just to be a part of this - life, that is. Never mind the outcome, the ending, just to know we're here, have been here, are here for whatever amount of time.

There are other gentle assurances - "It will be okay" is the way he opens the gentle lope of another of the album's highlights, The Healing Day.


Life Is People opens with There Is a Valley and every time I play it (which is a lot, lately) I think of Mike Scott of The Waterboys. I don't mean to necessarily compare Scott and Fay, but it's a nice thought to have Scott's work - and what could be a pointer to where Scott could go - evoked through this. It's meant that not only have I fallen in love with Fay's work again, I've thought of another great songwriter that I haven't, truth be told, thought of in quite some time.

On the album goes, next up is Big Painter - the "big painter in the sky" being the metaphor for a discussion of God, contemplation of afterlife plans. There's a mood and a tone here that has me thinking of Robert Wyatt. Again, I'm not dashing this off as lazy comparison - it's more (again) the fact that in reconnecting with Fay through his music I've been sent off to enjoy (all over again) some of my favourite works by Robert Wyatt (including the very good albums from more recent years, Shleep and Cuckooland as well as early favourites, Rock Bottom and the winningly titled Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard).

Wyatt's feel and touch is referenced for me again on Life Is People with City of Dreams.

And Fay repays the debt to Wilco - who have surely sent many of their fans in the direction of his songs; his work - by covering Jesus, Etc. A most exquisite cover it is too, just Fay at the piano, his voice just slightly beaten but never broken, the themes within the song fitting in so perfectly within the themes of his album. A perfect reason for a song to be covered might be that the performer feels they could have written it themselves. This treatment takes this song from Wilco to Fay and delivers it to fans of both artists. It just might be a new entry to the original song, a new way of hearing it and looking at it. And that's part of the magic of a strong - purposeful - cover.

As Fay offers encouragement to Be At Peace with Yourself and sends his heartfelt appreciation, Thank You Lord, I'm reminded that the greatest gift I can see religion offering the world - as a deeply non-religious person, in the traditional sense - is the power to inspire wonderful music (and art). Songs of devotion resonate with me. They do not make me want to book a pew next Sunday in church, they don't have me any less in agreement with a lot of what the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Richard Dawkins and others have said in passionate argument against religion, but I'm always happy, sometimes even overcome with a joy that is all the more magical and mystical given it's directed at something so figment-like, tangential and not at all palpable when I hear how vividly, how deeply moved a person can be. Mortality is something to bring that out, of course. And as Life Is People moves from beginning to end - very much in that sense a song-cycle as much as it's an album, and again, not so much to be directly compared with Paul Buchanan's Mid Air, but there is something of a kinship, a mood - I'm hooked, every step of the way. I'm along for this ride. I love the journey.

So I just wanted to tell you about Bill Fay's new album, Life Is People. To recommend it I guess. I'm not sure it will get all of the coverage it deserves - not in New Zealand anyway. And for me it's already proven itself, in a year of fine music, of great releases, to be one of the most moving, inspiring, beautiful, deeply profound and gorgeous records of 2012.

Have you heard it? Are you interested to? Have you heard Bill Fay already? Are you a fan? Or did you hear Life Is People already and find it not to your taste?

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