Written by: Dave Cantrell
When it comes to the purveyors of songcraft, Pete Astor may be the craftiest of all. And by ‘crafty’ I don’t simply mean particularly astute at what he does – though he is, to an almost unparalleled degree – nor do I mean clever – though he has a certain streak in him without a doubt – nor do I mean playfully devious, exactly, though of any of those possible meanings that last one comes closest to the thinking behind that opening statement. I mean, sure, many are the lyricists and composers over the years that have been endowed with the necessary levels of genius and hubris to weight their work with just that right touch of irony to cause the listener to do subtle emotional double takes as the true nature of a song’s meaning sinks in, as it is suddenly understood that things are perhaps not as they first seemed, that the love professed is in some manner possessed of devilry (our most common variety, of course), or that whatever other form of loveliness alluded to in florid, sunny detail is but camouflage for the desperate – or at least precarious – state of the human condition within. Noel Coward Cole Porter Costello and Dylan, Scott Miller Joni Warren Zevon and on and on, they’ve been pulling these stunts for years, devising witty often sparkling songs that in the end make clear that it’s not enough to say that the human heart is too often lost in its own internal Twilight Zone but rather is the Twilight Zone, a little engine in the center of us that seems dedicated above all else to the art of seductive deception.
But Pete, our man Mr Astor here, he may very well take the subversive cake. I’d say that exhibit A could be his immodestly fine new album Spilt Milk but I’d argue, and persuasively I believe, that Astor’s entire career, from the Loft days through the Weather Prophets and The Wisdom of Harry, might be laid out before a jury for similar purpose. While it should go without saying that I’m not implying in the remotest that there exists some bland resemblance from tune to tune, album to album (nothing could be further from the truth), it’s still the case that when you listen to any one Pete Astor song you’re essentially listening to everything the man’s written (Pete Astor, the Mr Synecdoche or rock’n’roll). The adroit pop touch, his deft way with an artisanal lyric – never too arch, too dry or overwrought – the manner in which the warm intimacy lures you in before what might be called a cozy fatalism suffuses your senses and you’re lost, almost opiated, in a kind of ephiphanic melancholy that nonetheless, somehow, feels so good, all that’s always been there (including, it would be said, in Ellis Island Sound’s unvoiced emotionality) and is there on this new record in plangent strokes of exceptional mastery. What’s perhaps all the more significant about Spilt Milk is that none of this was supposed to happen anymore, or anyway so one assumed once that last, hushed, valedictory sigh of a note faded away on previous album Songbox‘s final track “Mistress of Song.”
That song, the entire stock-taking gist of the album – not to mention this interview – seemed to make it abidingly clear that Pete Astor was, rather resolutely, done with this music-making business. Among Songbox‘s dusky scattering of poignant, straight-ahead autobiographical sketches were not only a couple of thinly-masked industry indictments (“The Ride,” “Dunce”) but, more to the point, songs wherein messages, oblique or less-than, could clearly be interpreted indicating a fatal fatigue with entire charade. “Mistress of Song” was one, certainly, but then there was “Dead Trumpets” opening the record with the words “Time just loops here now, I’m going going gone,” the drift of which one needs neither a weatherman nor a college degree to understand. But apparently the metaphorical demise of the brass section was a tad premature and the mistress proved a bit too bewitching as Astor found himself unable to resist the lure of the recording studio, or in this case the home studio of James Hoare, he of Ultimate Painting, The Proper Ornaments, and Veronica Falls fame that not only produced but was a veritable one-man band, contributing guitar, bass, drums, keys, and backing vox (additional help came from Pete’s live band of Jack Hayter of Hefner on pedal steel, Alison Cotton viola, Pam Berry singing and both Robin Christian and Susan Milanovic on drums). As casual as perhaps the prospects were, however, as collegial the process, the fact remains – and hovers above one’s anticipation as one sets the tonearm reeling – an unspoken pressure attends the dropping of the needle. Songbox, due its circumstance, the arc of its author’s determination, was indeed intended as a kind of life-capping statement, an intention it achieved with the subtlest grandeur imaginable, which, that being rather the point since it’s Pete Astor we’re talking about, marked that record out as an ageless success. Inescapably, then, Spilt Milk lands here in early 2016 inside a brilliant shadow that’s been looming for some three and a half years. How, precisely, does one follow such a pinnacle? Well, since again this is Pete Astor we’re talking about, you simply go out and make another one. He has, in short, done it again, and with apparent supernal ease.
To listen to this album is to once more take a musically picturesque journey through Pete Astor’s pop psyche, which, in the event, involves following roads that appear to fork everywhere we turn. Setting off with “Really Something,” what sounds on the surface an almost breezy – if, of course, slightly clouded – love song, its pace jouncing merrily along, could very well, upon closer inspection, be addressing the very conundrum just mentioned above, the ‘really something‘ it feels good ‘hanging out with‘ being music itself. It, like everything on this record, is dished out with the usual Astorian trademarks, full of those quietly clever ironies already mentioned (including the sly use of the word ‘clever’ itself in the first line that carries the double weight of being sincerely self-effacing but ultimately true), a genuine, gently articulate vocal tone, and immaculate (yet unfussy) production, which isn’t even mentioning the dapper grace of the arrangement in which the whole thing is wrapped. Lovely, and a triumph, words that, again, we may as well apply to the whole of Spilt Milk.
The already Marc Riley-adopted “Mr Music,” aside from being a just-under-three-minute masterclass in how to compose a pop song, all loping sway-along rhythm and sing-along sha-la-la chorus, is also as self-deprecating as pathos gets. “My Right Hand,” beyond being catchy as hell and boasting the album’s neatest couplet (“rebel in his bedsit crying, Tony Hancock’s not having fun/but I don’t care cuz I’m Groucho in the club of one“), has enough winking somersaults of meaning tucked into it to make anyone dizzy. “Perfect Life” takes the Velvet Underground on a sad Sunday drive where utopia finds a misfit in its midst (and who could that be? Hmm…), “The Getting There,” with its stately, laconic persistence – Milk‘s lengthiest track by some margin – is existential pop at its finest and it would be wise to not let Lloyd Cole hear it lest he spend the rest of his life in tears.
And so it bloody goes, song after bloody song, but y’know, what to expect from someone that’s responsible for some of the most enduring cuts in the canon (“Almost Prayed,” as just one example, will still be being played when the final rains come). This record, without a lot of fanfare, ranks alongside Astor’s finest work, which, yes, by extension sets it in the company of any of the worthiest pop-crafting singer-songwriters you’d care to name, a claim I can make without fear of exaggerating because with this album it’s impossible to do so. “Very Good Lock,” with its hypnotic simplicity of percussion and a progression of such engaging ease one might think it should be more accurately entitled “Very Good Lock and an Even Better Hook,” catches British reserve like stifled lightning in a jar, “Sleeping Tiger” is YMG all grown up, shed of their bedroom hush and loosed upon a broader stage with a more autumnal outlook, while the embracing quietude of romantic regret-vs-acceptance soliloquy “Good Enough” is of such unadorned beauty as it tackles the paradox of the title phrase that it should be the last word on the subject and oh fercrissake I’ve said enough. Spilt Milk was released digitally January 8th and will be available on vinyl and CD February 16th via Slumberland (Fortuna Pop in the UK) and may very well set a new record for the earliest street date ever for an album-of-the-year and imagine that, rest of the album-making world: on your marks, get set, race over. [pre-order Spilt Milk here]