Even in his youth, Bill Fay never composed songs an older, wiser man wouldn’t have written. He already sounds seasoned on 1970’s “Garden Song,” begging to be buried among potatoes and parsley—a humble resting place for a lyricist equally preoccupied with the cosmic and the epic. Identifying with the ingredients of a peasant’s supper, looking “for lasting relations / with a greenfly, spider, or maggot,” he sings of bonding with the natural world, beginning with the bottom rung.
“The Never Ending Happening,” the standout track from 2012’s Life Is People, Fay’s first studio album in four decades, feels like a sequel broadened in scope. It consists of a simple circular piano progression, with a burst of grainy cello toward the end. Fay’s low voice, quavering yet resonant as a kindly senator’s, pores over not only the inevitable marriage of man and earth—in a word, death—but also the lot of man while on Earth:
The never ending happening
of what’s to be and what has been.
Just to be a part of it
is astonishing to me.
The theme that life is a divinely constructed be-in, a piece of collaborative performance art that never concludes, echoes throughout Life Is People. Individuals, as small as greenflies and maggots in the grand scheme of things, are brushstrokes, instruments contributing to the magnificent swell of life governed by an omnipotent force. Fay plays himself, the observer in the twilight of life, still awestruck:
Souls arriving constantly
from the shores of eternity.
Birds and bees and butterflies
parade before my eyes.
He also takes care to emphasize the non-uniformity of the happening’s participants: some are crippled by circumstance, others are emboldened by privilege. Likewise, he sings of the beauty the world possesses—“Nightfall stars sun rise again; / birdsong before the day begins”—but also of its capacity for destruction, even without the meddling of its inhabitants. Awesome and treacherous, the “waves crashing against the cliffs” are beautiful in the way that unrelenting natural phenomena usually are, the way they can carve shapes into slabs of rock but also swallow humanity in salty gulps.
As gentle brimstone suffuses “The Never Ending Happening,” we find Fay considering the ultimate conductor, impresario, and artist of the whole happening, “yearning for the day to be / when God’ll roll his stone away.” As the piano progression loops, Fay surveys from the ground up, a bit player in the be-in, but he also circles from above, contemplating the tumult from a perch on the shoulder of a deity who probably agonizes over His masterpiece in the same way everyday folk mull over the trajectory of their greenfly-like lives. For Fay’s God cannot be heartened by all he sees: he is a tortured artist who wonders if the worst of human possibility has overwhelmed the best—the
“happening” overextending its galactic engagement, the whole experiment perhaps destined to be flicked wearily into the trash like a flawed sketch.
If Fay were younger and more famous, his speculation about a higher power might feel trite. But Fay is not young. He is humble and very mortal. Entranced with humanity in all its perfection and imperfection, he knows his time observing the happening from his God-given vantage point has mostly passed. So he spends a few sweetly melancholy bars in the heavens, wondering how it would feel to be in the position of debating whether to watch it spin on forever.
Partial list of record labels on which Fay has released music: Wooden Hill, Coptic Cat, Dead Oceans; Other evocative song titles from Life Is People: “This World,” “Big Painter,” “The Healing Day,” “Jesus, Etc.,” “The Coast No Man Can Tell”; Number of tour dates scheduled in promotion of Life Is People: zero; Proviso on contact page of billfay.co.uk, “the one and only website dedicated to British singer and songwriter Bill Fay”: “NO FAN FICTION THOUGH, I REPEAT NO BLOODY FAN FICTION.”