By Christopher Hollow.
The cult of Bill Fay is based on an eccentric single from 1967 and a pair of austere Deram label albums from the early ’70s.
Songs like “Be Not So Fearful”, “Omega Day” and “I Hear You Calling” were rich slices of kitchen-sink poetry that perfectly captured the bleak end-of-the-’60s London landscape. It’s easy to imagine those records as the alternate soundtrack to a film like Withnail & I.
Both albums housed a few ambitious clangers, too, that showed a young songwriter chafing against his limitations. And, just like Withnail, Fay’s shot at stardom seemed to take its toll.
The cover of his self-titled debut had him walking on water. By the time of the stark black and white photo on 1971’s The Last of the Persecution, Fay was shown as a sleepy-eyed, heavily bearded Rasputin character – a man seemingly living on the margins.
Neither those images, nor the songs, had any impact. The records failed to connect with either fans of Bob Dylan/Leonard Cohen or a pop audience dazzled by glitter and glam.
It would be over thirty years before Bill Fay would release another album.
Acclaim, however, did come and unlike Nick Drake, Fay was alive to appreciate it.
Who is the Sender? is a gentle, ruminative, slow-rise of a record. The feeling that emanates is that Fay, now in his 70s, has no regrets. This idea plays out with the opener, “The Geese Are Flying Westward”. The narrator sweeps a factory floor as he watches the birds overhead. “Maybe I should have ventured outside the places that I know,” he wonders. “But I don’t think so.”
The album also shows that Fay is more comfortable in his aims. His singing, writing and the surrounding instrumentation never overreach itself like on “Garden Song” and “The Sun is Bored” – the overambitious opening offerings from Bill Fay.
“Underneath the Sun”, with its tumbling piano notes, is the singer at his most confident. “The War Machine” is even more direct – again juxtaposing nature against questionable human endeavours. “There’s a hawk in the distance / he ain’t praying for forgiveness/ It’s his nature to kill / but mine isn’t / but we all kill in ways / that he doesn’t / as we pay our taxes / to the war machine.”
The finale is a re-recording of “I Hear You Calling”, originally on Time of the Last Persecution. “All my time is lying/on the factory floor,” he sings.
Has Fay spent the past 40 years working in a factory? It would seem so and the idea adds to the pathos.
“Give me back my time/I hear you calling/From the river bank/I will be coming/When the air is black…”
Who is the Sender? is filled with searching queries, a surprising absence of bitterness and the glow of small victories. Of course, a victory can only really be savoured when you’ve known defeat.