Bill Fay - Who is the Sender?

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2015-04-27

Jeff Tweedy and Nick Cave will tell you Bill Fay is one of the greatest songwriters you have never heard of. I couldn't agree more. Since stumbling on a now out-of-print collection of demos in 2004 (From the Bottom of a Grandfather Clock), I’ve cherished Bill Fay’s music.

Songs like 'Maudie La Lune' and 'Be Not So Fearful' made my jaw drop. The Beatles or Ray Davies cut with Leonard Cohen’s lyricism and Nick Drake's dark introspection. Haunting. Melodic. Brilliantly arranged and orchestrated. After years of searching in vain, eventually, both of Fay’s legendary, long out of print albums for Decca were reissued. I pounced on them and devoured them. 

I got the same thrill I had of discovering Nick Drake in the early 90s. Soon Fay was high up in my pantheon of long lost cult artists like Drake, Nick Garrie, Davy Graham and Bill Fox. Once Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy started singing Fay’s praises, I knew the cat was finally out of the bag. But for a fleeting moment, I was hip, I was above the curve. I was alone with my well kept secret stash of Bill Fay records. 

Prior to 2012’s Life is People, Fay had not officially released an album since 1971’s rather arcane, Time of the Last Persecution. While Life was a welcome return, Who is the Sender is less tentative and more assured and focused.

'War Machine' sounds like a prom night waltz on the eve of the impednding apocalypse. The hawk may kill, Fay muses and while it’s not in his nature to kill like the hawk, we all kill when we “pay our taxes to the war machine”.

Anti-war sentiments have been a constant fixture in Fay’s work from the beginning. But unlike a lot of other anti-war songs, any self-righteousness is left at the door. Fay’s tone is more world weary, broken-down and heartbroken.

“At the heart of me, there’s a melody,” he sings on 'How Little', and nothing could describe Fay’s songs more. 'Underneath the Sun' captures Fay at his most epic and cinematic. 'Order of the Day' is a gorgeous anthem to holding on to a thread of hope in a turbulent world.

The title track is just a thing of rare beauty. Meditating on the gift of music and asking, “Who is the sender?/ I’d really like to know/ I want to say thank you/ I want to say thank you/ to the unknown sender, far away.” The song, like this entire album is rooted in a shy atmosphere of spare piano and stately orchestration rising to crescendo.

'Freedom to Read' is a touching epistle to William Tyndale who first translated the Bible into English and was burned at the stake for it. “That’s what he gave his life for, the freedom to read”, Fay quietly sings in hushed tones.  

For me the true highlight, among many delights, is 'Bring It on Lord': “All this sickness and disease/ bring it on, Lord/ and I won’t dream no more/ I won’t dream no more for a better day to come”. Powerful stuff, and indicative of an album that is altogether unconcerned with being commercial or fashionable.

There is something more substantive and durable at work here. Add to that Fay’s wry, gentle humor. “It’s all so deep, it’s all so deep,” he chides in How Little.

An autumn hymn to clouds that roll by and rivers that run underneath the setting sun. A whispered word in the eye of the storm. If you’re a longtime fan of Fay like me or a fan of Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, this record can’t help but grab you. One of the most powerful and effecting albums you’ll hear this year.   

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