Ten years ago, Stephen Fretwell put his guitar down. Literally, in the sense that he had finished all of his musical commitments, but metaphorically as well. He had recently seen the birth of his first son and decided to embrace the domestic life of a full-time dad at the expense of his nascent music career. “I didn’t come up for air until my son started school, by which time we had another son,” he commented. “I just forgot about songwriting. I didn’t even own a guitar for five years.”
Fretwell is back now, nearly 14 years after his last LP Man on the Roof, with his third album Busy Guy. As if the title didn’t give it away, Fretwell is well aware of his conspicuous absence from public life. It’s not like he pulled a Brian Wilson or an Axl Rose or even a Jay-Z (which, for the immediate future, will be rechristened as “pulling a Sinead O’Connor“): he didn’t lose control over his mind and his art, he didn’t needlessly obsess over an insurmountable mass of hype and perfectionism, and he didn’t even explicitly retire. He just focused on other things. He was just a busy guy.
The album opener ‘The Goshawk and the Gull’ starts pensively as if Fretwell is tentatively walking back into a space that he unceremoniously abandoned a long time ago. But what may, on first listen, come off as trepidation or uncertainty eases its way into comfortable relaxation and unhurried decisiveness, with every note being put in its ideal place.
The emotional punctuation marks are subtle but stirring, like a perfectly crafted piece of art that took a long gestation period to grow. Tracks like ‘Embankment’ and ‘The Long Water’ unravel with casual ease and stark immediacy that feel like the songs weren’t held too preciously. Fretwell and producer and close friend, Dan Carey, founder of the Speedy Wunderground label, recorded the songs in a single session on a hot July afternoon last year.
“For 13 years I hadn’t walked into a professional recording studio to stand still and make a record from start to finish in one delivery – one go,” Fretwell says. “Just the terror of the tape spools beginning to turn and the red light coming on…”
Indeed, the only disturbing aspect of Busy Guy is how discontent Fretwell sounds. He spent years in a relatively solitary state, but his hands are still bleeding. There’s a pervasive and haunting sense of loss and guilt that no amount of reflection or time away could properly wash away. “Where did the fun go/Sash windows/Over the road there/They are steaming up.”
Still, even at his most unnerving, Fretwell can’t help but imbue true beauty into his songs. Maybe it’s his spiderweb-thin delivery, beckoning you to edge closer and closer in as he refuses to rise above a hushed whisper. Maybe it’s his delicate fingerpicking that grounds every song, or the abstract noises and gentle synth buzzes the creature a pillowy, dreamlike texture. Whatever the case may be, Fretwell sounds as fresh as he ever did, with Busy Guy reaffirming his singular talent for lyric writing and emotional resonance.
The true gift of the album is the cycle of colour songs that fill up the second half of the LP. With a gentle kind of grace, Fretwell mixes nature imagery with religious imagery and minutia that can only come from stopping and slowing down to pay close attention. “Moon craters” and “crazed constellations” keep a certain edge of psychedelia, but they are just as impactful as the impossibly ordinary scenarios, like horseflies twitching in last night’s wine glasses or the fridge-cold lagers the narrator of ‘Pink’ has brought for the beach. It’s the intricate details that make it sound as if Fretwell is in the room with you, speaking unpretentiously while longing for a connection and a bit of empathy. Even listening through speakers or a pair of headphones, it’s hard not to connect right back.
So the real question is this: was Busy Guy worth the wait? Well, I guess it depends on the way you perceive time. If you’re a punctual and impatient figure with a relatively short attention span, chances are Fretwell’s music won’t appeal to you and probably never did. He took too long and missed the boat.
But Fretwell plays music that lies out of time and space, outside of modern trends or common musician cycles. He embodies the artist who creates on their own personal clock. He doesn’t need an album every two years, or frequent tours in between. He has the luxury and personal want to work at his own pace. In that way, Busy Guy is a gift from a person who happened to find himself once again in a place to share his creativity and unique talent with the world. It’s delightfully low on stakes and high on charm. It lives up to what a decade of curiosity could inspire, even if most of us would have just been happy that Fretwell had picked his guitar back up again.
Busy Guy is released July 16th through Speedy Wunderground.