Bill Fay – Countless Branches (Dead Oceans)

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My first introduction to the music of Bill Fay was sometime around 2004.  Reissues of his first two albums (1970’s Bill Fay and 1971’s Time of the Last Persecution) were making the rounds.  A circular hype sticker adorned the front of both of the reissues featuring a choice quote from Uncut that read “The missing link between Nick Drake, Ray Davies, and Bob Dylan.” I was sold, and once I got the chance to wrap my head around those albums, it was apparent his music did indeed slot right in next to the songwriting giants name-checked on the front. Fay’s records quickly became close companions of mine, as my job at the time saw me trekking often alone across the Pennsylvania wilds with Fay’s songs of life, death and apocalypse reaching across the chasm of time to connect in a profound way with another soul via my silver iPod mini. It’s the kind of human connection via art that seems apt for music as deep as Fay’s. What he managed to convey as far as songwriting achievement goes on those first two albums is something that few artists might hope to achieve in a career, never mind a pair of albums that luckily snuck out before his record label pulled the plug.

Bill would however prove to be a hard guy to keep down, and time proved to be very kind his slim body of work whose existential concerns which might not have proved ideal for the hit parade, but resonated with a small cult held in awe by his songwriting gifts. He briefly popped his head up from the underground in with the formation of The Bill Fay Group in the mid-seventies (with the resulting sessions the group recorded eventually released a few decades later as Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow). Things went dark again until 2012 when Fay re-emerged with Life Is People, and the follow up Who Is The Sender in 2015.

Countless Branches is the third album since his unlikely return, and it’s a brief and stunning beautiful eight-song collection (the deluxe version features some additional tracks and alternate takes, and in this writers opinion worth seeking out). The album boasts spare yet effective production, which places Fay and his piano front and center. On this collection, which was pulled from across his decades of writing, feature lyrics that are so spare they cut to the bone. His eloquently spartan words choose to ruminate on the themes as universal as familial love, and one’s continuing search for divine and spiritual meaning. One could see this as the final chapter in a trilogy, which he began with his reemergence in 2012.  Fay started musical journey by metaphorically planting himself in garden on the opening track on his debut album, now fifty years on his songs spread out like endless branches from the mighty tree that sprouted out from that proverbial sapling with songs that continue to influence and inspire generations of musicians and writers. Fay closes the record with a simple sentiment that in the end when everything else has been stripped away that only love remains. It’s a sentiment that acts not only as a perfect album closer, but also a perfect bookend to his entire discography. Whether this is Fay’s final statement remains to be seen, regardless Countless Branches is a disarming tower of song that, in spite of its spare approach, is easy to get lost in.

Order the album via Dead Oceans.

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