Written by: Dave Cantrell
Let’s consider a few admittedly overused phrases that are nonetheless germane to the album at hand: ‘like clockwork,’ ‘deceptively simple,’ ‘the benefit of hindsight.’ That they apply to Pete Astor’s latest, One for the Ghost, isn’t so much the story (they might just as easily be drafted into service when reviewing any artist of Astor’s age and stripe, though regarding the latter ‘thin on the ground’ would surely be required) but rather it’s the how and the why they come to mind that matters.
Since the unsettling existential crisis wherein every aspect of his lengthy creative career was called into question and that found its hard-fought resolution in 2011’s astonishing Songbox (as honest and moving an audio catharsis as you’ll find), the former Loft/Weather Prophet/Ellis Island Sounder, with what would seem a spirit-calming sigh of acceptance, found his way back to full flourish, whatever fog of anguish lifted, the air around him crisp and clean again and alive with possibility.
Helped in no small part by an artistic – and highly empathic – alliance with James Hoare (Proper Ornaments, Victoria Falls et al), the first evidence of this espirit-de-fuckit resurgence was Spilt Milk in 2016, an irrepressibly engaging record that found the words ‘solid’ and ‘exquisite’ becoming synonymous. And now, right on schedule, comes One for the Ghost that, being where he’s at, will surely be followed by the next Astorian statement in 2020. For now, though…
As has been forever thus when Pete’s operating in the pop context, the tracks here have about them a naturalistic shine of subtlety, as if they appeared out of the ether, effortless and fully-formed. It’s an impression one assumes will make the songwriter happy – mission, after all that meticulous patching-together, accomplished – but it is also, of course, misleading. The songs may shimmer with what seems a tossed off ease but, by way of challenge, we ask you to try it yourself and wing whatever results our way here at SEM central, an invitation last tendered seven years ago in response to Paul Simpson’s similarly ‘effortless’ songwriting when reviewing Wild Swans’ The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years. Our guess is that here, as then, our inbox will be conspicuously absent of takers. The sublime, it turns out, is hard to find.
Ego-less yet unafraid of its own perfections, unfussy but gloriously careful of detail, Ghost‘s tracklist is a sure-handed masterclass in that most basic – but far too often elusive – songwriter’s tenet: It’s all about the song. Work of this quality, so imbued with self-assurance you can’t tell it’s there, brings many of us a fevered if calmly observed joy that is listening-to-music’s version of being in love. It’s the kind of buzzingly pleased state that has me jotting down lines in the margin such as ‘gilded with modestly ornate fletching, these are finely-crafted pop arrows aimed unerringly at the intersection of heart and mind,’ when really all needs be said is that these are some quietly banging tunes, built out of immediacy and restraint.
Bearing a now-seasoned universality the gist of which has long been Astor-the-songwriter’s signature ability – an enviable forte that can’t exactly be taught – songs such as the opening “Walker,” pulling threads of our own fatalistic wandering into a narrative outwardly about ‘that’ guy every town has, the one striding with tireless purpose toward no-place-to-go, the gently devastating “Magician & Assistant” with its chimera of hope hovering just beyond the blinding spotlights, and the compact, eloquent title track that ranks alongside his most accomplished work, clever but not too, jauntily mordant in a way we’ll all sing along to and gladly, Astor proves himself up to the challenging task of carrying forward his considerable pop-steady legacy without any signs of its weight dragging behind him. Hell, “Water Tower” percolates along with enough burbling popsike energy to light the quaint English municipality in which said tower might well sit even as it’s no less imbued with dashed off existential innuendo – “meet me at the end of the line, meet me in the dying of the light” – a tic of sorts that defines a grey-skied Britishness no less pronounced than that of the Swarbricks and Thompsons in the storied English folk canon.
All of this, it should be crucially mentioned, is burnished into a lively ambered glow by a backing studio band – the deft Hoare on guitar, Wave Pictures’ Franic Rozycki and Jonny Helm, umm, helming the rhythm section (bass and drums, respectively), Pam Berry of Black Tambourine lending vocal harmonic depth – that provides even the more wistful tracks (“Injury Time,” “Tango Uniform,” valedictory, devastating closer “Dead Fred”) with an energy and grace that feels familial and lived-in, that at every turn manages to stay confidently out of its own way.
Thinking about it, to those staid and stale chestnuts pulled from the rhetorical ashes up top, let’s add another just as ripe with pertinence: Let history by your guide. Pete Astor is writing songs here in the twenty-teens that brim with as much human eloquence as those authored in his Weather Prophet prime. More autumnal they may be in the main but no less vital, and if anything, curious as this is to say, they might well prove to be even more timelessly essential.