British singer-songwriter Bill Fay has long been one of those musician's musicians. This may be due mostly to the obscurity of his recordings, or the fact that musicians can empathize with Fay losing his contract after two poor-selling records. But as the internet renders obscurity relatively obsolete -- and as Fay's work has come back in print -- the praise for Bill Fay is becoming more widespread. Still, despite the love for his sophomore record, 1971's Time of the Last Persecution, it's unlikely anyone expected Fay, now in his late '60s, to finally put out a follow up to that record.
That, however, is exactly what he's done with Life is People, and it's a record that both draws a clear line back to it's now 41-year-old predecessor and feels deeply removed from it. Fay, for his part, was never one of those singer-songwriters who went spare. His first eponymous record and Resurrection are unabashedly lush records, full of strings and big bands, and these arrangements fit Fay's honeyed yet dark vocals. If his songs were about the big plights of the world, the bittersweet music behind him hinted at hope for a future, whether it was better or not.
Now Fay still takes aim at big troubles -- greed, war, pollution -- but his view has become more generous. Opener "There is a Valley" mentions "every city bar brawl" and "every fistfight", but mostly it's full of warm guitars and soaring organs and Fay musing about "the holy one" and a future day that's calmer than today. "The Healing Day" is a moodier, quieter tune, focusing mostly on Fay and his piano, but if the hope is a bit more cautious here, if the future seems a bit further off, the strained quiet of Fay's voice gives away a convincing faith. "Every battleground," he promises, "is a place for sheep to lay."
Life is People succeeds best when it inverts the approach of Resurrection. Here, we get the dark landscape of "City of Dreams" juxtaposing with Fay's wistful lyrics. Spacious guitars hint at city blues, but Fay's a "street sweeper in your city of dreams," as he looks past the neon lights as something higher in the sky, something brighter. The most heartening track, "Be At Peace With Yourself" feels solitary at first, but then a choir of voices joins Fay and it becomes the album's warmest moment, the kind of big, guileless pop song that can break through even the thickest layer of irony.
In every note, Life is People feels like a deep labor of love, and not just for Fay. Producer Joshua Henry grew up listening to his father's copies of Fay's records. Jeff Tweedy, whose duet with Fay, "This World," is an album standout, was Fay's loudest advocate in the music community for years. And some of these players, like Ray Russell and Alan Rushton, played with Fay back in 1971 on Time of the Last Resurrection.
This all gives the album a lot of heart, but it does -- as many labors of love do -- make for some indulgence. Fay's version of Wilco's "Jesus, Etc." is all slow, brooding piano and is compelling at first, but Fay's version never quite picks up steam and ends up dragging a bit. In fact, the middle of the record kind of slogs through a lot of spare piano. The longest song here -- "Cosmic Concierto (Life is People)" -- is simple enough, but overly long, letting Fay repeat the album's title phrase too many times without pushing the song forward.
So Life is People does have its missteps, but even those don't sap the album of its undeniable charm. It flies in the face of much of what music is doing now -- it's big and syrupy, it's tackling big ideas with big heart, and its unrepentantly positive -- and so it's a solid antidote coming from a music veteran. Sure, Life is People, may not be the best Bill Fay, but hearing this there is no doubt about one thing: it's great to have him back. And hopefully this record is just the start of that return.