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The reason that the English singer-songwriter Bill Fay descended into obscurity circa 1971 is that on neither of the two Deram albums that he had released up to that point (Bill Fay and Time of the Last Persecution) had he found a way to bring his gently apocalyptic, elliptically Christian folk-rock to life.
By the time that he began recording the much-improved Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow with Gary Smith, Rauf Galip, and Bill Stratton as the Bill Fay Group in 1978 (think Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney sharing a piano stool while brainstorming chipper demos), the music industry had moved on to disco, punk, and new wave—styles as far removed from Fay’s as styles could be.
When the producer Joshua Henry coaxed Fay out of retirement and back into the studio in 2012, the proliferating niches resulting from the music-appreciating public’s unprecedented atomization all but guaranteed that the resulting album, Life Is People, would gain at least some traction. And it did, turning Fay into a critics’ favorite and smuggling the prayer “Thank You Lord” into the musical diets of the kinds of listeners who take their cues from NPR—which among other more-secular-than-thou tastemakers celebrated Life Is People as a major achievement.
It wasn’t quite that, but Henry’s chamber-folk settings did suit the softness of Fay’s 68-year-old voice better than the straight-ahead rock settings accompanying his youthfully earnest delivery. Three years later, the similar, if somewhat less consistent, Who Is the Sender? followed to comparable acclaim.
The newest fruit of the Fay-Henry collaboration, available in both standard and deluxe editions naturally, is Countless Branches (Dead Oceans), Fay’s most intimate album to date. But while increased intimacy is a welcome factor where many artists are concerned, it leaves Fay, who has never been anything but intimate, sounding extra naked—assuming such a condition were possible.
On the standard edition’s 11 tracks, Henry has scaled back the accompaniment to such an extent that almost all of the responsibility for putting the tunes across falls to Fay’s piano and his increasingly frail voice, leaving the lyrics, essentially, to stand on their own. When they’re solid (“Love Will Remain,” a deft condensing of 1 Corinthians 13, or the title track, an equally deft meditation on God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12), their unadorned simplicity makes them feel like peeks into deep mysteries.
Sometimes, however, they’re too muddled (“Time’s Going Somewhere”) or too sentimental and verbally clunky (“Your Little Face,” “Salt of the Earth,” “I Will Remain Here”) either to compensate for their meager melodies and their draggy, mostly drumless tempos or to support the weightiness of their themes.
The fuller-sounding “band versions” of “Love Will Remain,” “How Long, How Long,” and “Filled With Wonder Once Again” on the deluxe edition’s eight-cut bonus disc reveal glimpses of the stronger album that Countless Branches might’ve been had Henry forgone the bare-bones approach—and of the stronger album that might result if Fay and Henry decide to give their partnership yet another go.