Thank you, Bill Fay, for offering up such a richly rewarding, calming center in the eye of the shitstorm that is our current existence.
With the release of Countless Branches, former cult figured turned revered elder statesman and folk icon Bill Fay has officially eclipsed the number of albums (two) on which his original reputation and subsequent admiration was built. It’s fitting, then, that this third album should not only function as an extension of his 21st century “comeback” (if such a term can be applied to an artist who so few even noticed in the first place, let alone in the intervening years), but capitalizes on everything that has made Fay so a well-regarded songwriter and musician.
Taking a step back from the more instrumentally-dense moments of his first two career-revival releases for Dead Oceans (2012’s Life is People and 2015’s Who is the Sender?), Countless Branches is largely centered Fay’s sparsely-constructed piano chords and melodies, his aging, lilting voice floating effortlessly above. By no means an attempt to capture the solitary aesthetic of one-time-contemporary Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, the album nonetheless captures a similarly haunting feel through its sparse instrumentation and delicate melodies.
Yet where Drake’s music was riddled with tragedy, Fay’s offers a sort of tender optimism and hope for those reeling from an era in which nothing seems to make even the slightest bit of sense. On “I Will Remain Here,” he sings, “I will remain here among the hills of my youth/ I shall stay here and search for the hidden truth/… I’ll not be traveling to the other side of the world,” showing a steadfast resolve to find meaning and purpose in the here and now rather than searching for the proverbial greener grass. It’s a theme that flows through the bulk of Countless Branches, Fay showing himself to be of a particularly spiritual bent in terms of his connection with the world around him, the people and places that have made him into the wizened old man of 76 he has become and his acceptance of that which he cannot change.
But don’t think for a moment he’s become emotionally reticent or societally complacent in his old age – this isn’t a series of dispatches from a hermetic life lived far from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Instead, he offers a quiet alternative to the constant onslaught of bad news, social and political in-fighting and the generally shitty state of the world as it stands in early 2020. Opening track, the spiritually introspective “In Human Hands,” lays this most plainly when he sings “I want to feel my heels touch something real.” It’s a bracingly simple reminder that, regardless of the world around us, in order to be able to properly process its constant upheavals and horrors, we ourselves need to remain emotionally, physically and spiritually grounded in our existence.
It’s not quite the “Serenity Prayer,” but it’s basic tenets aren’t too far off. And the majority of Countless Branches follows suit, both instrumentally and lyrically, offering a meditative song-cycle that can help the listener, when fully focused on the music, enter a world of introspection and calming peace. There are no major peaks or valleys on the album. Instead, Fay offers up a soothingly similar sonic palette that rarely rises above a gentle hush and, in the process, provides the aural equivalent of a dreary afternoon spent under a warm blanket, ones head resting on a comfortable pillow and the world gradually dissolving into a series of impressionistic color patterns.
Upon return, the listener feels refreshed, revitalized and once more full of hope and optimism for a better world. Given the current pattern of world events, one might do well to keep Countless Branches on an endless repeat cycle. While the whole of Countless Branches will no doubt prove most effective, small doses of “Filled With Wonder Once Again,” “Love Will Remain” or “One Life” (among countless others) may be administered for a quick emotional and spiritual salve in those particularly challenging moments that seem to fill our days. Thank you, Bill Fay, for offering up such a richly rewarding, calming center in the eye of the shitstorm that is our current existence.