As a young man, Bill Fay sang about the end of the world. Though the London songwriter’s 1970 self-titled debut album hinted at apocalyptic pre-occupations, it was his 1971 lp Time of the Last Persecution that cemented him as a purveyor of distinctly climactic visions. Born out of the chaos and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Fay’s songs reflected back the raging fires of the time, his spooky folk songs—bolstered by sheets of out-there electric guitar by Ray Russell—gave fantastical shape to the looming “Omega Day.” “It is the time of the Anti-Christ,” Fay sang. “Know what I say.”
Five decades later, those same fires still raging, Fay continues penning songs about grand conclusions. But on his sublime new album Countless Branches, he nods in the direction of a more unnamable end at hand, the mystery of inevitable passing. At 76, Fay has lived a long life, much of it in private, tending to his family and garden, seemingly removed from the bleak prognostications of his youth. But his songs haven’t grown any less consequential. The new lp is his third since 2012, when producer Joshua Henry coaxed the vanished pianist back into the studio. Like those other recent records, it’s a collection of songs chiefly concerned with the unbreakable connections of family and love for humanity. But it feels even more urgent than those that came before it. Fay still wants us to know what he says, and he’s saying “hasten it, hasten it.” There’s not much time left. The end remains at hand.
So many of Fay’s startlingly good early songs offered specific depictions of dread: marigolds dying in the garden; the sun setting, never to rise again; cruel rulers overseeing their subjects. Hitler or Christ, he quizzed. You have to choose—the worst of humanity or the best? But Fay’s Countless Branches doesn’t find him bitterly held captive by imagined terrors. In defiance of the odds and the “human hate” he cites in the album’s invocation, he remains connected to universal beauty. He remembers how this “world can keep a man in chains,” but those chains don’t ensnare him. “Be not so fearful,” Fay sang long ago. 50 years later, he’s imparting the secret knowledge he’s gathered up since then, illustrating what that lack of fear might look like: “I will turn my back on the forces from hell/And feel my heels touch something real.”
Lacking fear doesn’t mean possessing certainty, of course, and Fay wonders if time “is purposeful” on the gorgeous “Time’s Going Somewhere.” His songs have long employed Christian imagery, but rarely prescriptive dogma. Like the Biblical books that inspired him early on, the 2nd-century BC book of Daniel, and the last book of the New Testament, the Revelation to John, Fay’s albums are filled with vivid images: a small face in the vastness of outer space, towering forests of interconnected trees, ships setting out from the harbor. Like all good prophesies, the effect is less about foretelling and more about ruminating. “I don’t know now, but maybe one day I’ll know,” Fay says, dwelling in the tension of the possibility that perhaps time isn’t meaningful, how it might undeniably change us, but might eventually change us into nothing at all. “Time’s going somewhere, somewhere for sure,” he promises, but he can’t tell us where the road leads.
At this point in the album, a thin volume packed with monumental ideas, cosmic despondency doesn’t feel like an inappropriate response. Fay wonders about the “word Abraham heard,” recalling Yahweh’s promise to the patriarch, citing from the King James, “In thee and in thy seed, shall all families of the earth be blessed.” But how can one square that with all the destruction and inequity on display every time we turn on the news, log on, or simply drive to work? Is divine grace really so provincial?
As the music takes a descending turn, it becomes hard to imagine how all the suffering of existence could be worth it. Even if we were personally able to escape the impossible to escape pageant of suffering and loss, what about so many of those around us, whose pain is always present, sometimes imperceptibly, but always elementally considered? In this cryptic and fraught moment, Countless Branches feels most like Time of the Last Persecution. It doesn’t recall not its noise or fervor—while the deluxe version of the new record expands the sonic palette to include some full-band interplay, Countless Branches stays mannered and polite in its acoustic arrangements—but rather the core of its apocalyptic imagination, its suggestion that despite all this violence and sadness, things might be made brand new.
With “One Life,” Fay concludes this particular sermon. Over piano, acoustic guitar, and humming organ, he shares the most transcendent lyric of his songbook yet. “One life,” he sings, then he repeats it, “is beyond any kind of fathoming,” the Apocalypse of Fay distilled to a verse. What if, Fay asks, time might not be a force working to dull us down into nothing, but a process of continual creation and rebirth? The albums that make up Fay’s comeback trilogy, Life is People, Who is the Sender?, and now Countless Branches, revel in the hope that our capacity for love can increase over a life. For all its pain and joy, one life is already beyond measure. Whether after we expire it continues on in some strange new way or is truly concluded, it was a wonder to be part of it at all. words / j woodbury
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