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Stephen Fretwell
Busy Guy Ed Power , July 20th, 2021 07:28

After a break of over ten years, singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell returns with Dan Carey on the desk and a pocket full of melancholy

First he was wavering, now he’s drowning. Though Stephen Fretwell’s third album arrives after more than a decade of semi-retirement – and a stint washing pots in Wetherspoons – the time away has not sweetened this diffident singer-songwriter’s perspective on life, love, and suffering. If anything there is a feeling of a frail spirit slipping into the depths. Busy Guy brims with imagery of Fretwell all at sea, sliding between the waves, struggling for purchase as he is caught in the grip of a huge, destructive riptide.

The anguish is easily explained. Fretwell wrote the record as his marriage was in the process of collapsing; it is suffused with the quiet panic of someone trying to keep their head above the churn. “Drag my body from water … half the city is ablaze,” the 39-year-old Scunthorpe native mumbles on ‘Embankment’. Later, on the Cat Stevens-channels-Nietzsche dirge ‘The Long Water’, he croons of being “in the drink… diving low”.

The effect is unmooring and rendered doubly so by Fretwell’s disarmingly husky vocals. He sings like someone who understands the world is cruel, life short and hopeless – but who cannot help himself from seeing the funny side.

But then, he would know all about cosmic jokes. Fretwell had the bad luck to emerge in the early 2000s just as the British singer-songwriter milieu was careening towards an existential crisis. The success of David Gray had made earnest men with guitars suddenly popular. Alas, a darkness was on the horizon and the name of that darkness was James Blunt.

And so, by the time Fretwell arrived with his full-length 2004 debut Magpie, a furious pushback against sincere, bestubbled types was underway. And if Fretwell was a collateral victim of the Bluntian backlash then that was truly a tragedy. Magpie and 2007’s Man on the Roof were steeped in a uniquely touching vulnerability. Fretwell wasn’t merely sharing his hopes and fears. He was, it felt, digging deeper, pulling out fresh, loamy truths even he only half comprehended, and sharing them with the world.

That sense of an artist setting aside all filters continues on Busy Guy, recorded in a mere two or so hours (plus a smattering of overdubs) at London’s Dean Street Studios with Goat Girl / Fontaines DC producer Dan Carey. Needless to say Fretwell is anything but a boy in a better land. Instead, he walks barefoot through the ashes of his marriage via scenes that unfold like Cold Feet by way of Midsommar (“remember your cool indifference…played out for our friends,” he sighs on ‘Remember’).

These diaristic eruptions are sketched with a novelist’s eye for imagery. On ‘Pink’, he talks of “dancing on the hired car in the morning’’, on ‘Orange’ proclaims “sugar-coated honey is in a tizzy, pulling and clawing at me.”

What makes Busy Guy extraordinary is its scorched-earth intimacy. Fretwell’s voice rarely rises above a whisper; his guitar playing consists largely of skeletal fugues so minimalistic it’s as if they are barely there at all. Yet oceans of pain and lifetimes of regret are packed into an LP that hooks a cable to the listener’s soul and cranks the voltage all the way up.