For decades, from the quiet of a tiny home studio, Bill Fay has contemplated God, the natural world and our complex existence as it relates to those things. With new album Countless Branches he invites the listener inside.
As with many of Fay’s newer records, Countless Branches was culled from a backlog of self-recorded demos, tracked with a Technics keyboard and a Korg D8 in short spurts as inspiration strikes. More instrumentation and lyrics are then added as the spirit moves the songwriter.
On Countless Branches, Fay again worked with producer Joshua Henry, who he’s collaborated with since his 2012 return, Life Is People. But instead of the earthen rock moments on that album, Countless Branches is vast in its conveyance of Fay’s profound introspection, his piano and voice ringing clear. Its more minimalist style is a welcome return to the sound of some of the finest moments from Life Is People, like “Never Ending Happening” and his elegiac cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”, where Fay’s sage and kindly presence is palpable, lyrics flowing from heart across larynx and directly into the listener’s ears. In this sense Countless Branches is a terrific reminder that two things can exist at the same time: that amid the firehose of digital noise and innovation there exists a quiet corner of a London home where a septuagenarian songwriter has been working with the same spartan tools for decades.
“My dad always used to say, ‘If you think you can eat a bit more, that’s the time to stop,’” Fay says. “The songs lend themselves to that.” This ethos first presented itself when Fay and Henry tracked album opener “In Human Hands”. Tape was rolling when Fay played it through on piano, his voice soft and close. Henry preferred to leave the song in that state, drawing the listener in with Fay’s clear-eyed and soulful inflection as he sings, “I wanna turn my back on the force from hell/And feel my heels touch something real.” It’s an invocation of the posture that makes Countless Branches such a compelling listen, vivid scenes of nature and the human condition presented with minimal fuss. Fay’s gentle vocal rasp is front and centre, acting as narrator and friend, woven with threads of acoustic instrumentation for texture.
It’s a warmer interpretation of Fay’s celebration of and concern for the state of the world than on 2015’s icier Who Is The Sender? Here on Countless Branches Fay’s thoughts are hopeful, enveloped by the warmth and intimacy from simple piano chords and tender acoustic guitar or cello: he relays the enduring legacy of love on “Love Will Remain”, and the hope he finds in children’s laughter on “Filled With Wonder Once Again”.
The sentiment culminates in the title track as Fay sings, “I’m thinking ’bout the word that Abraham heard/In thee and in thy seed/Shall all families of the earth be blessed”, a transmission of his regular ponderings in nature, in this case beneath the many branches of a literal and metaphorical family tree. Rather than condemn the evil he sees in the world, he leans into the good – family, children, trees and the wonder he finds in these simple blessings. That’s not to say Fay’s worry doesn’t present itself on Countless Branches, but it does so in a more relatable manner, less an all-encompassing dark void than interstitials of existential angst in an organ of peace and hope.
When asked if he’ll tour Countless Branches, Fay demurs, as he usually does, leaving fans to pine for a physical exchange of song and spirit. And so the bonus tracks included here feel especially like a gift, presenting full band versions of “Your Little Face”, “Filled With Wonder Once Again”, “How Long, How Long” and “Love Will Remain”, which hint at how the songs might have been interpreted for the stage, flipped from spare meditation to full proclamation. At the very least, they pull back the curtain on the 10 days Fay and company spent at London’s Snap Studios, working up full arrangements for guitar, bass, drums and strings before shedding most of those things altogether.