Bill Fay is one of English music's best kept secrets. At the dawn of the 1970s, he was a one-man song factory, with a piano that spilled liquid gold and a voice every bit the equal of Ray Davies, John Lennon, early Bowie, or Procol Harum's Gary Brooker. He made two solo albums but his contract wasn't renewed, which left his LPs and his reputation to become cult items. But he never stopped writing, the music kept on coming. Now, in his late sixties, he has produced Life Is People, a brand new studio album that shows his profoundly humanist vision is as strong as it ever was.
His debut on the underground Decca Nova label, Bill Fay (1970), included spacious big band jazz arrangements by Mike Gibbs, but it was the follow-up, Time Of The Last Persecution (1971), that cemented his reputation a harrowing, philosophical and painfully honest diagnosis of an unhealthy society and a messed-up planet, that featured the cream of London's fieriest jazz session players such as guitarist Ray Russell. Unable to make ends meet as a musician, Fay wandered through a succession of jobs for years, writing songs privately. Both solo albums were re-issued in 1998, and when the likes of Jeff Tweedy began singing his praises in the early 2000s, Bill began to come back into view and Wilco even convinced the shy singer to join them onstage in London in 2007.
A few CDs of Bill's early demos and home recordings have since emerged, but Life Is People is his first properly crafted studio album since 1971. He was motivated by American producer Joshua Henry, who grew up listening to his dad's Bill Fay albums on vinyl. Spooling through Bill's home demos, Joshua discovered an incredible trove of material. Matt Deighton (Oasis, Paul Weller, Mother Earth) assembled a cast of backup musicians to bring out the songs' full potential. These include Deighton on guitar, Tim Weller (who's played drums for everyone from Will Young to Noel Gallagher and Goldfrapp), and keyboardist Mikey Rowe (High Flying Birds, Stevie Nicks, etc). In addition, Bill is reunited on several tracks with Ray Russell and drummer Alan Rushton, who played on Time Of The Last Persecution.
And it's a stunning return to form. Ranging from intimate to cosmic, epic but never grandiose, Bill's deeply committed music reminds you of important, eternal truths, and the lessons to be drawn from the natural world, when the materiality and greed threaten to engulf everything.
It's time to recognise one of the great English voices. After nearly 50 years, Bill Fay has finally delivered his masterpiece: as rapturous and soul-stirring as any music you'll hear this year.
Some careers are hard-fought; some are just hard. And some are as lonely as the long-distance runner. Bill Fay’s happens to be all three.
After two distinctly powerful and ignored albums – 1970’s Bill Fay and the following year’s Time of the Last Persecution, whose title alone indicates an already wearying state of mind – Fay went into exodus. Twenty-seven years passed before his reputation was salvaged when both albums were reissued in 1998, with previously unheard material and Wilco’s cover of Fay’s Be Not So Fearful feeding the cult worship.
Arriving 41 years after Fay’s last original studio album, Life Is People represents the return of a prodigal son you never knew existed. Its religious symbolism is inspired by Fay’s own relationship with faith, the result a stunning, profound, moving and soulful record.
Fay’s never preachy, his questioning the kind you might expect from a brilliant mind who, at one point, worked as a factory cleaner. There’s environmental awareness, existential drama and considered advice. If Father Time made an album, it might sound like Life Is People.
Fay’s deep-set voice and the music both rise to the occasion. There’s a string quartet, a gospel choir on Empires and Be at Peace with Yourself, and some judiciously employed guitar (his principal collaborator is Paul Weller sidekick Matt Deighton). The organ/piano foundations sometimes echo Bob Dylan’s wild mercury sound, and can be reminiscent of early Mott the Hoople’s rolling, wistful, valiant feel.
But mostly, Life Is People is just hugely moving. Sad, too, but a comforting Nick Drake-style sad, so you wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s hope as well, even if The Never Ending Happening and The Healing Day undermine their titles with the feeling Fay is writing his epitaph.
This World’s opening line is, “This world’s got me in its grip / ain’t no way can I wriggle out.” Yet Cosmic Concerto (Life Is People) starts out with, “There are miracles in the strangest of places.” One of those miracles is that Fay, after so many years, is again making music.
Another miracle is how brilliant Life Is People is. Redemption time.
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