Wednesday, 26 December 2012

What was my favourite album of 2012?

Some music is so exquisitely beautiful that it acts as a healing balm to all that is bruised and hurting within us. Some music embracing the this-ness of life, a never ending happening, swells the chambers of the heart. And then there is music with a radiant clarity, a transfiguring power, that forces you to your knees before the mystery of creation. Bill Fay’s remarkable album, Life is People, possesses all of the above.

In the early 1970’s Fay released two critically acclaimed albums that made little impression on the listening public. He was a voice crying in the wilderness of the music business. Having fallen out of favour with the accountants at Decca, Fay became a lapsed singer-songwriter. He made ends meet by working in parks, shops and by cleaning factories.

However, some of his followers remained faithful to his memory and treasured their vinyl copy of his 1971 masterpiece Time of the Last Persecution. His fans, including Nick Cave, Marc Almond and Julian Cope, never lost faith and waited for his return from exile. This finally happened in 2007 when the US indie band, Wilco (who performed a cover of Fay’s Be not so Fearful), persuaded Fay to step on stage with them.

Now, forty years after his last studio album, Fay has returned from the wilderness of his personal Lent. In his cupped hands he carries a music that is fragile and poetic, birdsong with a broken wing. This music has a prophetic pitch. It sings of the soul of man. It draws tears.

Strings, Gospel choirs, piano, electric guitars combine with Fay’s rich, bass voice to produce an album of musical conviction and integrity. Dense, lush arrangements (Cosmic Concerto) are balanced with a spare, compelling intimacy (Jesus, Etc.). Fay’s unpretentious lyrics have a Blakean quality – adult experience expressed with a childlike innocence and purity.

These songs chart Fay’s search for the voice of the Holy One, a voice that is so often drowned out by the ferocious chatter within us and the white noise of a technologically oversaturated culture where oases of repose are hard to find. Life is People has the feel of a contemporary psalter, a collection of deeply-felt songs recording exile, redemption and thanksgiving: Thank you, Lord, for the love you’ve shown me/ your Son on the Cross is ever before me.

There are miracles in the strangest of places, Fay declares, there are miracles everywhere you go. A couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Bill Fay. Danny Watson, a father who has a son in the choir at Brentwood Cathedral, recommended this album to me. I know Danny has a great love and knowledge of popular music so I thought it was worth taking his recommendation seriously. I’m glad I did and I’m indebted to him for introducing me to Bill Fay.

Listening to Life is People for the first time was a kind of miraculous cure. It was as if some unexpected, buffeting power caught me unawares and knocked me sideways. I had been deaf for so long, without realising it, and now could hear again. I could hear “the still, sad music of humanity” and had been given a note with which to sing new songs to the Lord. Yes, there are miracles in the strangest places, even in Brentwood Cathedral Clergy House.

Life is People is a masterpiece. Listen all you that have ears!

And my other favourites of 2012:

Channel Orange by Frank Ocean
Blunderbuss by Jack White
Devotion by Jessie Ware
Is your Love Big Enough? by Lianne la Havas
An Awesome Wave by Alt-J