Review: Bill Fay – Life is People
Published on August 7th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
It almost seems redundant to review Bill Fay’s first full studio album since 1971 given that you could just take Nick Cave’s word for it: “Bill Fay is one of the greats – this is a beautiful album”.
Not convinced by Cave’s ringing endorsement? Well, how about that of Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy? “Since we discovered the man’s records six years ago, I can’t think of anyone whose records have meant more in my life”. Why, here’s Tweedy covering Fay’s own “Be Not So Fearful”.
Still not sold? Well, check out this write-up from Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes. Jim O’Rourke has also spoken publicly of his admiration for Fay. If you need yet more convincing, simply read on, for Rocksucker has found delight in being somewhat au Fay.
There is a timeless quality to the music on Life is People that runs so beautifully parallel with its lyrical theme of the permanency of nature throughout the turbulent evolution of mankind; opener “There is a Valley”, with its chiming piano chords and sparkling acoustic strum – not to mention Fay’s measured, grizzled vocal – could conceivably have been put out at any point since the late-’60s and struck as a relevant and poignant protest album in any of them.
“Trees don’t speak but they speak to each other / Of a people long ago” introduces us gently to Fay’s meditations on the poisonous presence of man on this rampantly industrialised planet of ours, but its counterpart lines cut deeper: “Sheep don’t speak but they speak to each other / Of a killing long ago” and “Flowers don’t speak but they speak to each other / Of a crucifixion” may be delivered with a lightness of touch, but the implications are both damning and mesmerisingly transporting. This long-lost green and pleasant land…well, you can almost smell it.
“Big Painter” moulds a gentle air of menace out of its softly brooding string section, the already established motif continuing with “On the run from the news on the TV / No lessons learned / All over the centuries” and a doleful refrain of “over and over again”. We then have “The Never Ending Happening” observing, over its cascading piano arpeggios, “The neverending happening of waves crashing against the cliff / The falling seed, the wind carries / Souls arriving constantly / From the shores of eternity / Birds and bees and butterflies / Parade before my eyes”. It is quite, quite stunning, and Fay himself is suitably in awe of it all: “Just to be a part of it is astonishing to me”. That wearily sighing cello solo could very well be an earthly mouthpiece for something greater.
“This World” is more of an uptempo, bitter-sweet trot, not unlike Summerteeth-era Wilco, while the string arrangement of “The Healing Day” is so lovely that it could surely heal, perhaps even end global conflict, if it was only given the chance to do so. “People wired into telephones / Plugged into TV screens” are gazed upon by a street sweeper in “City of Dreams”, the slow-burning intensity of which reminds of Talk Talk’s classic Spirit of Eden LP, and once again our natural surroundings provide solace in the face of all these man-made agents of division: “You can’t buy and sell the clouds / They ain’t among the commodities we trade“. Give it time, Bill.
The gospel-tinged “Be at Peace With Yourself” sounds a bit like Paul Simon trying to temper Spiritualized‘s more epic inclinations, and we’re then treated to a cover of “Jesus, Etc.” from Wilco’s still-stunning 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, assimilated so seamlessly into the album by dint of its existing lyrical content (“Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad sad songs”) and Fay’s piano-and-voice-only rendition.
After the spellbinding, nocturnal duo of “Empires” and “Thank You Lord”, “Cosmic Concerto (Life is People)” sweeps away the cobwebs with its air of graceful optimism, attendant in both its music, which builds into a string-swept epics, and lyrics about parents holding children’s hands, trees blowing in the wind, seeds being sown by the wind: you know, all the good stuff. It’s the ideal way to bring us towards the album’s end, the musical equivalent of a raft carrying us to sun-kissed spot of land after months lost on stormy waters. “There are miracles in the strangest of places / There are miracles everywhere you go” – you’re darn tootin’.
Curtain-closer “The Coast No Man Can Tell” is every bit as perfect in its placement, just Bill at his piano with the following to say: “It’s time to leave and say goodbye / At least for now / You fought the battle most of your life / And you’re still fighting now / Soon you’ll be leaving for the coast / But it’s a coast no man can tell / It’s the end of life on this earth / And my brother, I deeply fare you well”. Life is People might very well stop you dead in your tracks, but that’s just because it’s so life-affirming.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!