Album Review: Stephen Fretwell – Busy Guy

[Speedy Wunderground; 2021]

Apart from maybe “Embankment”, with its deeply-worn sorrow and ache, there’s no standout single on Stephen Fretwell‘s new album as there was on his previous records. Busy Guy, his first album in 13 years, isn’t concerned with hitting marks. These are museful impressions of the world. Fretwell is weathered by a over a decade of life away from music and dealing with everyday concerns from washing pots and pans in a Wetherspoons pub, to raising his two children, to the breakdown of his marriage.

The 39 year old made a notable name for himself in the UK with his 2004 major label debut Magpie, which featured singles “Emily”, “New York”, and “Run” (the latter of which went on to feature as the theme to the BBC comedy Gavin & Stacey). Fretwell’s trajectory never seemed aimed skyward though. While he garnered some homely success from the aforementioned singles, an Ivor Novello nomination for his 2007 follow up Man On The Roof, and a gig working as the touring bassist of the Last Shadow Puppets, he never seemed destined for big-name stardom. Unlike the well-known household names bands he supported on tour (Oasis, Keane, Travis, Elbow), Fretwell always seemed more suited for intimate venues and smaller crowds, his hushed downward voice inviting you closer instead of trying to fill a large empty space.

On Busy Guy, his playing matches his voice and style better. It’s more closed-in, Fretwell’s hands bristling over bunched guitar chords. This is a record that wants you to lean in closer, pull up your chair that bit more. His first notes on opening track “The Goshawk and the Gull” are soft, fading in before a brisk note on his guitar string punctures the air and lassos your attention. Fingerpicking with a muted alarm, he sings with a familiar lonesomeness, his voice that bit more aged and that bit more worn than when we last heard him.

Dan Carey’s production is careful and light, and it only makes apparent how heavy-handed the production was on his last two albums; Magpie with its sweet, radio-ready sheen, and Man On The Roof with producer Eli Janney’s overcooked desire to coax some Americana out of the intimacy. They were products of their times in many regards, made in the style that perhaps suited what Fretwell was aiming for more, but here on Busy Guy the production actively feels in sync with the singer and songwriter. Some pointed keys here, some sombre cello there, and even a momentary burst of distortion on final track “Green”; it all fits and only serves to accentuate the wry poetic ruminations of Fretwell’s words.

And Fretwell is poetic here, more so than he ever has been. While in the past his selling point might have been finding a pinpoint angle at kitchen sink dramas or everyday woe, here he paints more impressionistic pictures of life – especially in the latter half of the album. “Sash windows / Over the road there / They are steaming up like they are full of gangster,” he conjures on “Copper”. “Molecules with their hats tipped,” he observes lightheartedly on “Green” with just a hint of Alex Turner in his voice. On “Almond”, he captures a love story through different moments in its progression, swirling together images of cigarettes smoking and love songs poignantly playing out. “A paper lantern steals breath from a nitrous air,” he wonderfully details at one point as a piano plays faraway in the background, like noise seeping in from another room.

Sitting in the British Library, Fretwell constructed the tracks by “taking the songs to pieces and reassembling them, refining the words, thinking about the stories.” The result is sometimes fragmented visions of thoughts from the past, like he’s trying to recount dreams and memories at the same time; clean through-lines aren’t always there on Busy Guy‘s songs, but they don’t need to be. The ache of “Embankment” is as clear as can be, Fretwell singing “Sweet Judith, my hands are bleeding / Sweet hubris, my heart is beating now” like a man who is sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor. Even when he’s teetering around details, he still ushers out a line that will resonate clearly: “Is there something I ought to say? / Did I throw my chance away?,” he questions on “Pink” over trickling, wooden synth touches.

Though it may not be apparent from the muted tones of the instruments, Busy Guy is full of colour too, from the song titles in the latter half of the album (“Orange”, “Pink”, “Copper”, “Green”) to the synaesthesia-like descriptions of details; purples, whites, grays, and blues are swimming about here, adding vividness to Fretwell’s imagery. He sings of birds too, no doubt inspired by his time living in Brighton on the south coast of England where he raised his two sons. Fretwell is an underappreciated and talented writer and poet, and his lyrics here never feel easy or even expected, even if his arrangements are sparse and unfettered.

The crux of Busy Guy seems to be time, though. “It’s been a long time / And time changed everything,” he sings tellingly on the middle track “The Long Water”. Time certainly altered Fretwell’s life, as he slipped from minor stardom to family life, returned to education to get a law degree, only to return to making music. After over a decade away from a studio, he impressively churned out Busy Guy in its bare form in just two hours on a hot July afternoon. Considering Fretwell spent five of those years away not even owning a guitar, he sounds remarkably attuned and as talented as he ever was. This is a delicately sincere and softly stark album, and arguably Fretwell’s best. It’s certainly his most intimate, but after all that time away, he’s no doubt figured out exactly how he wanted to say what he wants to.