A truly beautiful record...

Whatever happened to Stephen Fretwell? The songwriter’s outstanding debut album ‘Magpie’ won outstanding praise on its 2004 release, with the English wordsmith following this with two subtle, nuanced, emotionally engaging full lengths. But then… nothing. Well, certainly nothing outward-facing – in reality, Stephen Fretwell was focussing on things that mattered, on family, fatherhood, and those around him.

Yet old connections remained. New album ‘Busy Guy’ – the title is an in-joke at his near decade long slumber – was constructed alongside Dan Carey, with the two engaging with the project at a molecular level. The result is a spell-binding song cycle, one that displays wit, maturity, and emotional incisiveness, amid its spartan but beautifully rendered arrangements.

‘The Goshawk And The Gull’ is an opening statement that truly stops you in your tracks; Fretwell’s vocal brimming with accuracy and heartrending sincerity. ‘Remember’ has a pensive sense of introspection to it, yet its also an approach ringed with beauty; ‘Embankment’ and ‘Oval’ meanwhile are sojourns around London, a songwriter lost in thoughts, exploring inner and outer realms.

Songs such as ‘The Long Water’ – with its buoyant guitar line – and the fragrancy of ‘Pink’ may seem outwardly simple, or even bucolic, but their lyrical touch floors you. Even on repeated listens, the curl of Stephen Fretwell’s words, the way his voice approaches the most personal of elements, takes your breath away.

Indeed, there’s so much to explore on ‘Busy Guy’ that perhaps its title isn’t a misnomer, after all. Recorded across two hours at Soho’s Dean Street Studios, the results are transgressive, a true emotional exorcism. In a way, it recalls those old blues records from the 30s and 40s – leaning in to the microphone, attempting to keep feelings in check and fingers alert. A dazzling display of technical and emotional virtuosity, ‘Busy Guy’ is an incredible experience, a work of true intimacy from a songwriter whose return is long overdue. Magical.

9/10

Words: Robin Murray

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