17 years ago, Stephen Fretwell released an album of indie-folk gems that swept me off my feet. Magpie had a mesmerising mix of beauty and guts, a sense of a cheeky adopted Mancunian bringing a bit of Madchester attitude to a generally more acoustic and laid back sound. Songs like ‘Emily’, ‘Rose’, and ‘What’s That You Say Little Girl’ had so much personality that those who heard them found them impossible to resist. Three years later, he released Man On The Roof. While album two definitely had its moments (‘Darlin Don’t’, ‘She’) it was in many ways an archetypal difficult second album that didn’t come close to the heights of its predecessor. And then he disappeared. At the time it seemed a typical story of a promising artist not quite having the success they expected and having to step away. It was a shame. But in the fourteen years between Man On The Roof and third album Busy Guy, I have to admit that I almost totally forgot he existed.
That changed when I started seeing his name again earlier this year. The album I had looked out for for five or six years was finally looking like a reality, a lot later than expected. This sent me immediately back to Magpie and I was really pleased to see that the visceral connection I had had to those songs still held strong. I got excited. As the release of Busy Guy got closer I started to wonder what sound would be on offer – would we still see the semi-cheeky chappy writing thoughtful songs that could easily be adapted to a fireside singalong in a pub, or would the decade-and-a half break result in a different songwriter entirely?
Well, as Fretwell says on ‘The Long Water’ (one of Busy Guy’s many highlights) ‘It’s been a long time/and time changes everything.’ And from opener ‘The Goshawk and The Gull’ it is immediately clear that an awful lot has changed in the music of this mysterious figure, his sound deepening and maturing even as his distinctive voice seems not to have aged a day. In fact, in the opening few songs it seems that the chirpy lad instincts of the early albums has almost entirely disappeared. This is something a whole lot more serious. ‘Remember’ is a mournful and moving little ditty, while ‘Enbankment’ tells a heartbreakingly vivid tale. These are both gorgeous songs that show that, even as his words and music have developed a sense of seriousness, he has lost none of his lyrical prowess and exemplary storytelling skills.
The album peaks with the second to last song ‘Almond.’ Over its six and a half minute run time, Fretwell hints at influences as wide-ranging as Bob Dylan and the Arctic Monkeys. He tells an epic tale that brings elements of the personal and the political, all over a sumptuous sounding Spanish guitar. It is a song that fully justifies the 14-year gap between albums. But while ‘Almond’ stands out, that doesn’t mean that any of the songs that surround it are anything less than stellar. Fretwell uses the softer side of his vocals to plead to an unnamed muse on the gorgeous ‘Orange’, plucks his way through an admission of failure on the lovely ‘Pink’, and works himself up to a gentle and moving crescendo on ‘Copper’. Closer ‘Green’ is also a thing of beauty. And Fretwell takes all these songs to another level with the little flourishes that he might not have risked on earlier work – the guitar line on ‘Green’ for example, or the electronic background sounds on ‘Pink’ – sounds that so easily could have been left off, but make all the difference with their presence. It is moments like that which show how much care has gone into the creation of Busy Guy.
So Fretwell isn’t wrong when he says that ‘time changes everything.’ He has come back fourteen years later as a much more focused songwriter, creating something much more delicate, complete, and moving than I would have believed he was capable of all those years ago. And he’s done that while maintaining the personality and way with words that made Magpie so special in its own rights. He didn’t quite make it in the way that might have been expected back in the early noughties – with the release of Busy Guy he deserves the attention of a much wider audience. Here’s hoping.
Words by Fran Slater