“Did you see him walk on water?” Thus Ian MacDonald, in an only slightly less than serious frame of mind, recalled a typical question from fans of Nick Drake, many years after the singer’s death in 1974, when MacDonald (who himself was to die tragically in 2003, following a prolonged period of depression) told them he had known Drake during undergraduate days at Cambridge. Later in the essay, ‘Exiled from Heaven: The Unheard Message of Nick Drake’, to be found in the collection The People’s Music, MacDonald observed that sometimes “it’s as if Drake is half-asleep, daydreaming of something on the spiritual threshold of the material world”. Nevertheless, Drake’s use of nature imagery and “haiku-like simplicity” directs MacDonald into a more focused consideration of Drake’s hybrid mystical spirituality: a conflation of Basho and Blake.
On the sleeve of his eponymous first album, originally released in 1970 and languishing almost entirely neglected until a 1998 re-issue, Bill Fay too appears to be walking on water; though, as he pointed out in his retrospective observation for the subsequent 2005 re-release, some water had lapped onto a promontory by a lake in Hyde Park and it was this that had created the illusion. As with Drake, some recent enthusiasts for Fay’s music have drawn attention to the pastoral imagery in his songs, and then gone on to offer comparisons between the two writers’ uses of language and tone. Yet Fay’s details in his word pictures are quite a distance from some of the pastel shades of Drake, and they have long deserved to be appreciated on their own terms. The acuity suggested by “On a foggy day I can see her clearly through a hole I punched in the window” is plain.
The “search for meaning”, which Fay said his first album conveyed, is at times a jagged musical journey that begins with a wait for the “rain to anoint me and the frost to awaken my soul” in ‘Garden Song’, but then turns down one or two darker paths. The lush orchestration, so wonderfully affirmative in many places, occasionally hints at menace when it verges on the discordant, and the verbal language at times reflects similar uncertainty as “I took to watching the clouds” to distract from the ministrations of faintly sinister rather than entirely reassuring friends who insist that “we want you to stay”.
Some of Fay’s protagonists on this first album are never fully integrated into, yet never entirely separate from, what they observe. The sweet violins that accompany Willie’s joining the RAF (‘Gentle Willy’) are, of course, only grimly foreboding as he soon escapes to a tower that, nevertheless, overlooks a battlefield. A room in Paris or Tangier is still four walls that imprison, the strident rhythm compressing both physical and mental space, and even the beautiful ‘Be Not So Fearful’, later taken up by Jeff Tweedy, is not quite the calming imperative it seems to be as the speaker goes on to call to mind some unspecified thing that “you have done”, and insists that “you must forget them now, it’s done”. Spilt blood rather than spilt milk. Yet, despite these sepulchral shadows, the album is essentially a superb affirmation of the dignity of the human spirit, with the power of Fay’s writing carrying it gloriously across its extraordinary field of vision.
The glimpses of a landscape of lengthening shadows then turned into an unblinking stare at aspects of a terrifying world on Fay’s second album, Time of the Last Persecution (1971), its title track inspired by the same appalling episode that moved Neil Young to write ‘Ohio’, and the title itself taken from a nineteenth century commentary on the Apocalyptic books of the Bible. It is indeed a bleak record, yet it retains a (sometimes barely visible) thread leading to the possibility of redemption. Fay takes us into the World of Last Things as “the Omega Day is come”, and the despairing “please let the grass grow again”, from ‘Don’t Let My Marigolds Die’, reveals him contemplating a ghastly inversion of Eden. Any possibility of a vision of Romantic mysticism from this London-born son of Albion is snuffed out in ‘I Hear You Calling’, as “all my time is lying on the factory floor” speaks of dark satanic mills rather than of bucolic Grantchester Meadows. The shrieking guitar of Ray Russell propels ‘’Til the Christ Comes Back’, conveying an impression that’s less a medieval or Renaissance picture of piety, more a simultaneously sacred and profane version of Guernica, perhaps matched only by Fay’s howls at the end of ‘Inside the Keeper’s Pantry’ of “You never left me”, sounding hopelessly anguished rather than assertively defiant in its terrible beauty.
Fragmentary recording sessions since 1971, mainly at home, resulted only in a couple of issues over the last forty years, in part through the midwifery of David Tibet, so a first new all-studio recording, especially one including Ray Russell and drummer Alan Rushton from the … Persecution sessions, was always going to be an intriguing prospect. Producer Joshua Henry has long admired Fay’s work, based on an appreciation of his father’s old vinyl copies of albums one and two. With musicians of the calibre of Matt Deighton who has worked with, among others, Paul Weller, and Mikey Rowe (Stevie Nicks, High Flying Birds), Fay’s Life Is People re-presents this profound artist to a post-everything audience.
Fay’s breadth of vision is even greater than on his previous recordings, as if he has taken to heart what he refers to in ‘Big Painter’ as “lessons learned over the centuries”, and the immediate impression is one that is well sustained across the album, such that Fay’s trust in human magnanimity is more to the fore than one might have thought possible. ‘The Never Ending Happening’ has just Fay and his piano describe an ongoing process of creation, somehow both natural and divine, that is then counterpointed by the recognition of the darkness of war, a darkness that, however, does not obliterate Fay’s joyous engagement with the good. This carries over into ‘This World’, a song of such pace and verve that Fay convinces us that “too many years in the factories” can come to a redemptive end.
Movement across time and space in ‘The Healing Day’ doesn’t ignore that there are “battlegrounds”, but these (in one of Fay’s favoured ovine images) are invaded by sheep. Here the organ gives way to a rich orchestration that somehow parallels the teeming delight of Fay’s ultimate vision. This is not to say that his more optimistic tones fail to acknowledge that old failings have not been replaced by more modern, sometimes technologically-based selfishnesses. The lowly street sweeper in ‘City of Dreams’ is pointedly ignored by “people plugged into TV screens”. However, his more positive sense of hope often prevails in a way that is never cloying, as the gospel choir in ‘Be at Peace with Yourself’ beautifully fuses the secular and the spiritual. That “the new growth beneath”, in ‘Thank You Lord’, will emerge in a regenerating cycle is a sentiment that, through Joshua Henry’s sensitive production, we cannot doubt as it persuades rather than over-asserts.
And, indeed, throughout Life Is People Fay’s voice, enriched by time, suggests that it has come through much yet never descends into polemic. Ultimately, songs like ‘Cosmic Concerto (Life Is People)’ are both rich and delicate, life-affirming and never less than convincing. The generosity of spirit shown by Tibet, Tweedy, Henry and others who have long recognised his very individual talent is here repaid in Fay’s most open-handed offering to his growing congregation.