Countless Branches is singer/songwriter's Bill Fay's third album for Dead Oceans. He walked away after cutting two acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums for Deram in the early 1970s. He continued to write and demo songs on his own while working as a public groundkeeper for decades and living a family man's life. After he retired, a British label reissued his catalog. Current 93's David Tibet issued a (lost) third album and a collection of home recordings. Finally, producer Joshua Henry -- who found Fay's work in his father's record collection -- tracked him down and persuaded him to record again. Since 2012, Henry has produced three albums by Fay, nearly doubling his previous output.
Countless Branches stands apart from 2012's Life Is People and 2015's Who Is the Sender? Most tracks here are played by an alternating cast of musicians assembled by guitarist Matt Deighton (Mother Earth, Paul Weller), but it's Fay's sparse yet elegant piano that provides the album's center. The songs are lilting, willingly vulnerable, yet steely in their spiritual convictions and unwavering love for humankind even at its most flawed. In opener "Human Hands," accompanied only by his piano, Fay sings, "I wanna walk in the hills…I wanna feel my heels touch something real/I wanna turn my back on the forces from hell...." His directness reveals his acceptance of things as they are, and his resolve to resist anything that skews outside the force of truth. These ten songs -- as well as seven bonus tracks on the deluxe edition -- are missives from Fay's inner life. Written at various times, they offer glimpses into the heart of an older, humble man still in the process of discovery. In the waltz-like outing "Your Little Voice," featuring guitarist Ray Russell (with whom he has worked for 50 years), Fay claims the mystery of the universe is not so complex as his beloved's face. His reflection on small moments provides great revelation in "Filled with Wonder Once Again." Alongside Deighton, bassist Matt Armstrong, and his own piano, Fay sings, "I had near-forgotten everything, when/ I heard children laughing, in the rain, and/I am filled with wonder once again…." (The band version on the deluxe edition with a full-on electric band is equally fine.) The purpose in his slight tenor voice recalls George Harrison's from Dark Horse. In "Time Going Somewhere" and "The Family Tree," Fay ruminates that connections between blood, spirit, and earth -- previous and present -- are inseparable, one. Between those two songs lies "Love Will Remain," a short manifesto with Russell and a small chamber group that includes cello and trumpet: "When knowledge has passed away, love will remain… When prophecies have passed away/Love will remain…." Closer "One Life," played on piano, acoustic guitar, and harmonium, offers a spiritual and existential truth regarding humanity's mystery: "…One life, constantly changing, beyond any kind of fathoming/One family, the same, changing constantly, the same…one life is beyond any kind of fathoming." At 76, Fay shows no signs of slowing down, nor is he in a hurry. For him, making music is part of this life's journey: a gift he honors and imparts with equanimity and generosity. Countless Branches, perhaps due to its profound yet intimate vision as well as its craft, just may be Fay's masterpiece.