Bill Fay: Who is the Sender?

It felt appropriate listening to this album with the golden sunshine of late afternoon flickering through garden leaves, patterning my bedroom.

‘I’m planting myself in the garden…’ Bill Fay sang over forty-five years ago.  Who would have imagined what has grown out of those early songs, least of all Bill Fay himself?

‘Believe me…’   A small band of followers did and, like producer Joshua Henry, kept faith with the ‘legendary songwriter’.  His reputation grew quietly in niche circles over many years until 2012 brought Life is People and now Who is the Sender? [Dead Oceans, April 2015, DOC097].

So although this is the first ‘new music’ I’m writing about on lightspots, Bill Fay’s music feels like old music in several senses: the singer is 71, his vocals are frail, even semi-spoken at times (but still pleasing and very human) and an end-of-life feel is all pervasive.  Above all, the music deals in themes of time and timelessness.

New, old music

Who is the Sender? is unmistakably the work of an artist advanced in years.  Its awe inspiring, vaguely crepuscular mood calls to mind a man watching the sinking of the sun.  A quiet benevolence invites the same response from us.  Bill feels blessed even amidst the trials and tribulations of impermanence.  The sense that life passes him by in earlier tracks such as Tell It Like It Is seems to have resolved into an acceptance that this very impermanence is life.

The world of nature still populates his songs, sometimes of the backyard variety – bee, hedgehog – sometimes the over-arching sun, a watchful, omnipresent force of both life and its destruction.

As the album title indicates, Bill’s Christian inspiration is more transmission than mission.  Where do these songs come from?  His ruminations are reflective but not ponderous.  He tends towards the downcast when dealing with humankind, but is uplifted by nature.

It’s all so deep

I was one of the few familiar with Fay’s earlier work who felt disappointment on hearing Life is People.  Too many songs swung between simple chords and revolved around repeated mantras.  There was a lack of progression within songs and too much similarity between them.  ‘Spirituality’ often doesn’t make for great music and a little more variety in the slowly gathering pace would have been welcome (changes in tempo and dynamics were very much an aspect of his earlier work).

Thankfully, Who is the Sender? injects some variation.  There are still the repeated chants – ‘He gonna change the world’, ‘It’s All So Deep’ (which as good as sums up Fay’s outlook)  – but also freestanding melodies as on Change This World.

The album shares the same excellent musicians as its predecessor.  Drums, guitars, hammond, mellotron and sometimes strings work entirely in service of the songs (Ray Russell’s guitar in A Page Incomplete being a rare instance of semi-stepping into the limelight).  Guy Massey’s engineering and Joshua Henry’s production create a rich, sonorous ambient mix which is almost cinematic at times.  An overall refinement enhances a mood of dignity.

Factory floor

Although more enjoyably diverse than its predecessor, there is no getting away from the fact that Who Is the Sender? remains less melodically adventurous and lyrically imaginative than Bill’s 1970/71 work although in a way, that seems to be the point.  This universality is what you arrive at when everything else is stripped away.

I miss the moments of surreal humour that peppered Bill Fay’s earlier material  – I’m thinking of the profoundly whimsical  ‘Peace be in your team losing and in your dustbin that blew away’ – (Tell It Like It Is).  Fay’s humour of old has matured into good humour because even when he is angry he still sounds good natured and is perhaps at his kindliest when acknowledging his own frailties.

The album doesn’t labour references to his previous work though I love the image of Bill still sweeping the factory floor (The Geese are Flying Westward) just as he was forty-five years ago (‘all my dreams are lying on the factory floor’ – I Hear You Calling – reprised here but set to a far less appealing melody).  The parallel invites the image of the birds flying above the young Fay, too engrossed in his personal ambitions at the time to notice.  Now he is able to gaze upwards and marvel, knowing it may not be long before he is ‘flying westward’ too.

 Alternative gospel 

I’m not sure how this ‘alternative gospel’ (Bill’s term) album would sit with a listener coming to it cold.  Not that one needs to know the Bill Fay back-story but the pared down breadth of Who is the Sender, its humility and sense of gratitude, are more affecting following exposure to the screwed, paranoid musings of Time of the Last Persecution.  These latest honest, often unadorned reflections work if you patiently allow the words and music to quietly coalesce in your mind.

It is strange that Bill Fay’s career is likely to be bookended by two albums at the start and two at its end.   I’m not sure that there could be a follow-up to this album, such is its air of finality but with Bill Fay you never can be sure.

I shall certainly be posting about those earlier albums, sooner rather than later, I hope.

Bill Fay: Who is the Sender? [Dead Oceans, April 2015, DOC097]

The Geese are Flying Westward
War Machine
How Little
Underneath the Sun
Something Else Ahead
Order of the Day
Who is the Sender?
The Freedom to Read
Bring it on Lord
A Page Incomplete
A Frail and Broken One
World of Life
I Hear You Calling (Studio Reunion)

Bill Fay on Tumblr
Dead Ocean Records


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