[25 September 2012]
In the 2002 Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your HeartJeff Tweedy is filmed performing “Be Not So Fearful”, a song by British singer-songwriter Bill Fay. Fay had a very minor hit in the early seventies with “Pictures of Adolf Again”, a politically-fired but low key ballad. Fay’s self-titled 1970 debut and 1971 follow-up Time of the Last Persecution sold poorly and subsequently resulted in Fay being dropped by his label. As is the way for some worthy souls, the 2005 reissue of Fay’s releases fell into the hands of a new generation of sensitive types who knew a good turn of phrase when they heard it. Partly due to a much lighter back catalogue, Fay may never come close to gaining the cult status of a Leonard Cohen, but his songs have an eloquence all their own. After a whopping 41 years, one half of Fay’s Life is People proves worthy of such a long wait.
One of the many admirable things about Fay as a songwriter is his ability to be sincere while eschewing sappiness. The way in which his work approaches the spiritual has arguably had a large influence on Nick Cave and similar artists. While second release Time of the Last Persecution was largely a very good exercise in doom-mongering, Life is People feels affirmative enough to cleanse and free any listener mired by depression or a hectic professional life. “The Never Ending Happening” is about sitting back and marveling at life; about how even the simplicities of the natural world are awe-inspiring. While this subject has been covered in song before, it is a joy to hear it displayed in so lovingly a way. The shopworn tinge to Fay’s voice is a blessing; he sounds like a man who has truly lived his life and is now ready to settle and acknowledge the beautiful aspects of it. It is almost as if by chronicling the troubling parts in the past, Fay managed to dispel them.
Tweedy joins Fay on “This World”, the most musically lively track on the album. While the result comes across as a two-people-short update of the Traveling Wilburys, Tweedy and Fay sound too contented for derision. Yet Life is People truly aims highest when sparseness and resignation replace major chords and pastoralism. Fay’s cover of Wilco’s very own “Jesus, etc.”, poignantly reduced to a slow piano ballad, is so powerful that anything which follows—even the brilliant in its own write title track—feels like pure filler. Without the violin riff or Tweedy’s casual vocal approach, Fay turns the song’s heartstring-pulling aspect into a heartstring-tearing one.
Although sporadic, the use of a gospel choir throughout the record reduces the impact of a few promising numbers. While in songs like “Be at Peace with Yourself”, the employment of a choir seems like an appropriate transition, other songs—such as “Empires”—begin promisingly enough but instantly weaken once the choir overpowers them. Yet, it’s difficult to nitpick a work by a talented artist who just survived being lost to the ages. Although Fay’s fan base is likely to remain meager, those who Life is People touches are unlikely to hear a more inspiring album this year.