Album: Bill Fay, Life Is People (Dead Oceans)


Success in songwriting is as much a lottery as a measure of true quality.

Some writers instantly catch the zeitgeist, and become household names; others, like Nick Drake and Bill Fay, struggle for exposure, only finding their audience years later. Bill Fay made a couple of ambitious but overlooked albums on the cusp of the Seventies, then drifted into obscurity, his cult status gradually rising along with their eBay price, and the esteem of fans like Nick Cave and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. But it's Bill's time now: with the wonderful Life Is People, Fay has finally created the masterpiece that will secure his reputation and, hopefully, his future. 

It's not a young person's album, Fay no longer being young; though even when he was, his eye was always drawn to the shady side of the street. But there's no reason why anyone who bought a Leonard Cohen album shouldn't appreciate Life Is People: it's as if the accumulated wisdom and compassion of a lifetime has been condensed into a dozen beautiful, heartwrenching songs. And while there are devastating moments of quiet emotional turmoil, it's an experience from which one emerges more positive and hopeful and generous towards one's fellow fallible humans. 

It opens strongly with "There Is a Valley", a tableaux of landscapes stained with bloodshed, leading eventually to Jerusalem, where Christ's stigmata represent the memories of all atrocities. "Big Painter" – a metaphor for God – and "City of Dreams" find Fay a fretful outcast from society's brash media fantasies, the arrangements of vibes, organ and delicate guitar tracery establishing a static, ominous mood. "Be at Peace with Yourself" is a sibling-song to Fay's earlier "Be Not So Fearful", while "The Coast No Man Can Tell" offers the fondest of sad farewells to a dying friend. 

But "The Healing Day" is the knockout punch here, an anticipation of eventual redemption which, thanks to Fay's characteristically undemonstrative, modest delivery, offers an overwhelming hit of compassion stripped of the kind of bombast that usually attaches to such anthems. Truly, the album of a lifetime.