One of the greatest Christian singer-songwriters living today reveals the majesty of Creation.
There’s a beautiful scene in the film Awakenings in which Leonard, a man who has suddenly been released from a decades-long catatonic state, asks to see his doctor in the middle of the night. “We’ve got to tell everybody,” Leonard tells him. “We’ve got to remind them how good it is.” He picks up a newspaper. “What’s it say? All bad. It’s all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about. They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded about what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”
It’s an apt description of what Bill Fay’s recent albums, including the brand new Countless Branches, are all about.
Fay first gained a cult following with the release of a symphonic self-titled album in 1970, and the more experimental Time of the Last Persecution, which is marked by musical extravagances of the era, a year later. A blend of McCartney, Dylan, and Cohen, Fay’s songs were set apart from those of his contemporaries by a deeply spiritual, and unabashedly Christian, worldview, especially on Persecution. On songs like the title track and “‘Til the Christ Comes Back” we meet a wild-haired man regarding the chaos of a world gone wrong with prophetic fierceness. But we also meet a poet gazing in amazement at the mystery of life itself. “You were born though you need not have been born here at all,” he sings on “Plan D.” “And is that not some cause for worship, being born among these trees?”
Fay, too, fell into a decades-long silence. When he re-emerged in 2012 with Life Is People, it was with an even deeper sense of the beauty and wonder of life (“The Never Ending Happening”)—especially of human life. On “Cosmic Concerto,” he sings as if from a park bench, observing grandparents, parents, and little children playing: “There are miracles everywhere you go…Like my old dad said: Life is people.” The prophetic edge remained, especially on the darker follow-up Who Is the Sender? Tracks like “War Machine,”“Order of the Day,” and “The Freedom to Read”—a tribute to biblical translator William Tyndale that targets both the religious and secular authorities of the time—reveal a man still ready to bare his teeth at a moment’s notice. But Fay’s vision of the world was not ultimately poetic or political; it was still very much Christian (“Thank You Lord,”“A Frail and Broken One,” and one of my favorites, “There Is a Valley”). In fact, he is arguably one of the greatest Christian singer-songwriters living today—even though most Christians have probably never heard his name.
Countless Branches, Fay’s third album with Dead Oceans, continues this trajectory. But the prophetic voice is now almost entirely channeled into revealing the majesty of creation, and the more gentle, stripped-down acoustic piano gives us Fay at his most awed and humble.
It begins with familiar words of warning: “Everyone knows it, it’s self-evident / This world ain’t safe in human hands.” But where such a thought may lead to despair in the faithless, Fay is still (as “Salt of the Earth” and the title track remind us) a man marked by biblical faith; and very quickly, Countless Branches becomes an album of hope. In his book Surprised by Hope, Fay’s fellow Englishman N.T. Wright makes a compelling case that the word “hope” has been distorted in Christianity over the centuries, coming to mean a Platonic longing to escape from earth off into heaven, forever. We should want to go to heaven when we die, of course; but that’s only part of the story. The Christian hope, Wright argues, is that it will ultimately be on earth as it is in heaven; that the new world promised by Christ’s Resurrection will be fulfilled with the renewal of all of creation; that God will be, as Paul says, “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). This theme appears on the previous two albums (“The Healing Day,”“A Page Incomplete”) but takes on a greater importance on Countless Branches. Songs like “How Long, How Long,”“Time’s Going Somewhere,” and especially “Love Will Remain” express Fay’s Pauline hope. “Love will remain when knowledge has passed away,” he sings. “Love will remain when other tongues have failed.” It’s a lovely expression in a truth articulated by Bishop Barron in The Priority of Christ: “In heaven itself, faith will fade away (for we shall see God’s essence), and hope will evanesce (for we will have attained what we had hoped for), but love will remain, because love is what heaven is.”
But Fay is again at his most powerful when singing about the precious and baffling gift of life itself (“Filled with Wonder Once Again,”“One Life”). And the gift of new life seems to be especially on his mind. The bonus track “Tiny” is wonderful, but “Your Little Face”—especially the deeply moving bonus acoustic version—is a standout moment. It’s a staggeringly beautiful ode to a little life, a celebration of the mystery of one human being in light of the grandness of the cosmos:
In the furthest reaches of outer space
Slowly, but surely, the globe was made
But the sprawling sky, and the rolling sea
Ain’t nothing compared to the eyes that I see
On your little face
Your little face…
Stars don’t cry
Stars don’t smile
The joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!
Bill Fay has not forgotten—and it’s a gift to join him in the remembering.