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Bill Fay - Life is People

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Artist: Bill Fay

Album: Life is People

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: Sep. 13, 2012

You might not immediately recognize the name Bill Fay, so let’s fix that. The British songwriter released a pair of lost classics — a self-titled debut and Time of the Last Persecution — in the early 1970s, then maintained a low profile for more than 30 years. Life is People represents his first studio recording since 1982. That the likes of Wilco, Current 93 and Okkervil River have covered Fay’s songs should give you an idea of what to expect: songs rooted in tradition, yet slightly askew. Here, he’s getting a kind of hero’s welcome: a lovingly prepared and packaged album with prominent guests and heartfelt liner notes.

As one might expect from a folk-influenced British songwriter of his generation, there’s no shortage of pastoral imagery here. Fay sings, “Trees don’t speak but they speak to each other / Of a people long ago,” on opener “There Is a Valley,” and one of the later songs on the album is titled “Cosmic Concerto (Life is People).” That mysticism is shot through with a considerable amount of religious devotion, however: “There Is a Valley” proceeds toward a distinctly Christian conclusion, and the title of “Thank You Lord” gives a pretty good indication of its lyrical subject matter. The presence of both the flora and the faithful leads to an album more idiosyncratic than jarring, a peculiar fusion of two worldviews.

Life is People’s widescreen tendencies are offset by Fay’s distinctively weathered voice. On a song like “Healing Day,” that quality is magnified: Fay’s plea for help comes off as genuine rather than clichéd. Fay devotee Jeff Tweedy pops up to lend vocals to “This World,” and Fay returns the favor with a subdued cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” later on the album. Here, too, the sentiment is hard-fought: a conversation with God rather than something more personal.

The songs heard here do occasionally push lyrical metaphors too far. “City of Dreams” returns to a refrain of “Street sweeper, in your city of dreams,” and while there’s some atmospheric guitar work on display, the metaphor feels overdone. And the previously mentioned “Cosmic Concerto” similarly pushes the titular image.

In the end, though, Life is People succeeds. There’s a vitality to Fay’s voice and an energy to these musicians’ performances that lends these songs power. From the piano that ushers us into the album to the occasional strings or choral vocals that expand the scope, Life is People sounds familiar, but never tired. It’s a difficult line to tread, but Fay and his guests largely pull it off.

By Tobias Carroll

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