While the modern, digital era has often been derided for contributing to the apparent death of the music industry, it’s served as a veritable godsend to once obscure performers finding their back catalogues being rediscovered by fans all over the world. With virtually every album ever recorded now accessible by one means or another (read: not always legally), the chance for rediscovery of even the most minor of figures in music history is greater than ever before. Not since the folk boom of the early 1960s have forgotten artists been granted a second act long after their first appeared to be their final.
Then, countless artists captured by the likes of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith long thought lost were sought out following their rediscovery on scratchy 78s. Now, a similar trend has consumed a very specific sector of the music industry, with once overlooked artists being hailed as visionaries and the progenitors of new musical movements that took years to finally come to fruition. Where dreams of critical and commercial success might have once seemed feasible, the slow march of time and gradual disillusionment afforded by the music industry took its toll on scores of underappreciated artists whose careers died on the vine.
But thanks to the art of digital rediscovery, many of these artists are, rightly or wrongly, finding themselves unbelievably thrust back into the spotlight, sought out by fans and producers alike looking for them to live up to the legend on which their original career was built. Oftentimes these performers have long since abandoned their hopes for success in the arts, instead opting for a more financially or, more importantly, psychologically stable existence.
Vashti Bunyan, once under the wing of Andrew Loog Oldham and recording Jagger/Richards-penned singles, disappeared for over thirty years before returning to the public after her sole album, Just Another Diamond Day, was declared by the likes of Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart as having been highly influential. She has since gone on to work with both Newsom and Banhart, as well as the members of Animal Collective and a host of other admirers. Similarly, Linda Perhacs’ Parallelograms, virtually ignored upon its initial release, garnered critical praise in the 21st century, leading her to record her follow up, The Soul of All Natural Things, nearly 45 years later.
Add to this ever-growing list Bill Fay, whose two original albums, released in 1970 and 1971 on Deram, came and went without a trace when first released. Now, over 40 years later, he’s been hailed as a highly influential singer-songwriter, on par with the much venerated and rightly celebrated Nick Drake. But where Drake’s career was forever silenced by his own hand, the victim of his own emotional frailty, Fay’s remained solidly intact, despite rumors to the contrary following the release of the bleak Time of the Last Persecution. Coaxed out of retirement by producer Joshua Henry, Fay delivered his first new set of recordings after a nearly 40-year silence. Now, only three years after the release of Life Is People, Fay is back with an album of all new material for Dead Oceans, Who Is the Sender?.
Picking up stylistically where he left off, Who Is the Sender?, like its predecessors, is full of subdued piano-based ballads with lyrical ruminations of all matters ecological, political, philosophical and spiritual. Throughout, the natural world proves an unending source of inspiration, both lyrically and spiritually. With nearly all tracks carrying a reference to nature in all its forms and our place within it, Fay’s religious and spiritual convictions seem wholly of this world.
“Underneath the Sun” begins as a cataloging of all the natural wonders that surround us before devolving into all the terrible transgressions committed by the human race. We are all under the same sun, he sings, and we must learn to exist peacefully with not only one another, but with the natural world itself. “Something Else Around” furthers this idea, imagining us as fish oblivious to all the awful things going on in our world, only knowing that which we can see in the waters that surround us. While all of this ecologically-minded lyricism may sound a bit granola or worse, Fay’s mannered delivery helps temper some of the more peace-and-love sentiments, grounding them in reality through the beautiful fragility of his voice.
On “Order of the Day”, he is full of hope for the human race’s ability to change the world for the better. While keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground, he employs the duality of the sun/son homonym to cast his belief as both secular and divine. Shot through with subtle Christian overtones, Fay’s approach avoids the trappings of more overtly Christian artists, allowing his message to be absorbed more subtly, more organically, than those who sing explicitly of salvation and faith in a higher power. Because of this, tracks like “The Freedom to Read” and “Bring It on Lord” aren’t nearly as browbeating as their titles would have you believe.
With the title track, Fay expresses his thanks for his rediscovery and ability to share his art with a wider, appreciative audience. It’s an emotionally charged performance that, wrapped as it is in a chamber folk arrangement, proves highly affecting due both to the music and Fay’s earnest delivery. In this, his expression of thanks feels more sincere than his ecological concerns, as it was this that set into motion his ability to share his concerns with those beyond his four walls.
Haunting in its intimacy both musically and lyrically, Who Is the Sender? functions as a fine, if not altogether stellar, continuation of a much deserved second act. “I won’t dream no more for a better age to come,” he sings on “Bring It on Lord”. While ostensibly speaking of the arrival of peace on earth, he could just as easily be expressing his contentedness with the second chance he’s been afforded. Lovingly performed and sympathetically produced, Who Is the Sender? is a fine reminder of Fay’s rightly celebrated songwriting gifts.
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