Time Just Loops Here: Pete Astor’s “Songbox”

Pete Astor
Second Language

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Here’s how Pete Astor begins his new album, Songbox, released last year on Second Language:

Time just loops here now

I’m going, going, gone

Thematically speaking, the tone’s been set before you’ve even had a chance to take your first sip of tea. This is an album of reflection and stock-taking, sometimes with lovingly amber glances, sometimes with glances a bit more withering. There are sketches of regret, of misplaced yearnings, there are sly philosophic asides that plot not only the songwriter’s arc through one of the most fertile periods in rock’s history but as well the growth of the individual inside the persona known as Pete Astor. If at times it sounds like the plaintive address of the old pensive valedictorian, well, he’s earned that right. Pete’s been around, he’s seen some stuff, and lucky for us he’s up to the task of telling us about it. That he’s able to do so without a hint of bitterness, miles away from condescension and almost entirely free of irony will surprise no one that’s even casually followed the guy’s work. And because of how it’s made, how it sounds, because of the elegant meticulousness that breathes out at you from the opening downbeat of ‘Dead Trumpets’ to the faded piano chord of ‘Mistress Of Song,’ you’ll fall more deeply into Songbox than any other album in Astor’s long catalog. That may strike as extravagant, perhaps, but it’s not. It is, in fact, an easy guarantee to make.

Ostensibly, nearly every element of Pete’s past, every plank and shifting floorplan, gets yanked up, studied through a renewed, more mature perspective, mulled over a bit then rebuilt into this album. Nothing, it would seem, escaped scrutiny and possible inclusion.

So yes that includes all the scrappy lost promise of The Loft, the gold ring reach of The Weather Prophets – Creation spanning over them both – Wisdom Of Harry’s gently experimental pure pop gems, the folktronic, almost ambient quiltwork of Ellis Island Sound – both outfits that appeared to underscore a sense of escape from the grinding madness of the music industry – and the occasional solo turn that for a period found Astor the artist in a sort of French exile. Truly, his could be considered the emblematic journey through the shallows and heights of late-20th C. UK indie. But, most crucially for our purposes here, it’s the spaces in between all that, wherein doubt, love, age (its vagaries and advantages both), spots of mischief and, above all, an innate outlook comprised of equal parts fierce self-belief and sighing resignation, it’s there where the rubber meets the road on Songbox.

pete astor main

The resulting document is nothing short of sublime. What could have been a jumbled, ponderous record, slowed by the drag of a saccharine melancholy or at least maudlin with nostalgia, is instead an elegiac, measured and unpretentious Bildungsroman. And though the songwriter would quite possibly blanch at the use of such a starchy academic term, Songbox itself has no problem living up to every syllable of it with finesse, clarity, and an elevated, always melodic steadiness that might be described as a somber joy. It’s an album that begins with a lament and ends with one as well and yet you’ll come away curiously uplifted, which is down not only to the deft virtuosity on display but also the result of having been in the company of such an honest and artful effort for slightly over – that’s right – thirty-three and a third minutes.

Quite naturally, much of this is attributable to the lyrics, all very clearly audible – an Astor trademark since the beginning – but nearly as much credit has to go the album’s sonic terrain. Songbox’s overall flavor is pastoral. Perhaps a bit of a carry-over from the most recent Ellis Island Sound recordings (see interview), perhaps stripped down to maximize the record’s obliquely confessional nature (more likely), whatever the reason the effect is indeed quite striking. Less, as is so often the case, really is more.

With the exception of electric bass (played, along with a thousand other instruments, by David Sheppard) and a smattering of electric piano, the album is almost entirely acoustic. Electric guitar only really figures prominently in opener “Dead Trumpets,” and even there it’s relegated to crunchy rhythm status. And while a lead can be heard beavering away in the mix of “Slip Away,” it’s fairly overwhelmed by the jaunty preponderance of rhythmic elements and in the end can’t quite manage the volume of the flute solo. Augmented further by all manners of old-timey noisemakers – glockenspiel, banjo, melodica, kazoo, clarinet and handclaps – you might be excused for assuming the presence of Dave Swarbrick and the second coming of Lindisfarne but such is not the case. Songbox is close to English folk in the way Traffic often was, and anyway, Astor’s urbanized aesthetic and flint-eyed, literate way with a lyric assures this is no traipse into the Albion countryside, a fact the album establishes in literally the first half-second.

“Dead Trumpets” comes at you like an aggressive haunting. There’s that chopped electric rhythm, bit ragged ‘round the edges, there’s a basic bass and bass drum pattern hopped over by a skipping cymbal and they all come loping immediately into view with a vaguely echoey cadence, carried forward with a fateful, emphatic thud that’ll have your head nodding before you even realize it, before you can help it. Then Pete sings that first couplet and the sense of trance really kicks in. Rolling along on a bass line all of a sudden doing quiet, irresistible somersaults, hooked together by crisp declarative flute flourishes, the album’s theme of unalloyed, somewhat rueful rumination on how the actions of the past can tangle themselves into the net of perspective that comes with being a certain age (hovering around the mid-century mark, say) is unabashedly established. Not regret, so much, more the fatalist’s profound shrug. There’s a sense of séance to it, a sense embellished by a low, luring organ track that floats in under the second stanza, stays for the chorus, disappears, then sneaks back and stays for good, a lurking, blind, somewhat reeling presence that backdrops the song in eerie portent, an almost ominous note of nostalgia. But “Dead Trumpets,” ultimately, belongs to a woodwind.

Few instruments can better convey that sense of longing, loss, and sighing acceptance than a clarinet and Jenny Brand’s solo here – a jazzy, playful-but-mournful N’Awlins kind of thing – brings just the wistfulness necessary. As it gives way to one more swing through the chorus, we’re all reaching for our own dark-of-night bottle and our own uncapped memories are pouring through the ether. We are captured. The out line to that chorus and the last line sung has Astor certain that “no one’s going to sing along,” which is maybe true for those unfortunate enough to never hear it, but for the rest of us, we’ll be belting it in our cars, at our desks, from inside our headphones walking down the street. It’s damn near contagious in its singability, that line, which, of course, may very well be the point.

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And so we’re off and taken on the tour, driven past signposts and down circuitous alleyways and sometimes stopping along bluffs to take it all in. It’s as if we’re being shown a stack of living snapshots – of scrapes and melees and triumphs and even mysterious goings-on abroad – and the inclusion of a set of postcards in the album’s packaging, one corresponding to each song, all of a sudden makes such blinding sense you’d be shocked if they weren’t there. Pretty much all of what we’re shown is imbued with the deeply personal, sometimes quite clearly, sometimes more obliquely, but all of it’s in that scrapbook somewhere somehow, clipped masterfully together in a crisp, intuitive (if not strictly sequenced) narrative. Whatever yellowing may have occurred over the years has been whitened back into shape by the simple application of a rather fearless honesty. An artist strives for that, of course, especially one three plus decades into his work, and while it could be convincingly said that Astor’s songcraft has always trafficked in a level of sincerity most often unparalleled in his peers, on Songbox he’s hit a mark beyond. Though the songs are as absorbingly hook-laden as ever, all scales of pop pretension have been allowed to fall away.

So we get “Tiny Town,” as achingly lovely a chronicle you’ll ever hear of getting the hell out of the boxy little hamlet you had the misfortune of growing up in, the singer as teenager planning his escape,” flames in his hair (with) dreams of forever every night in (his) bed.” Again there’s the clarinet playing its evocative role but it’s the cavortingness of the flute climbing all around it like a butterfly on monkey bars that brings it home. The flute throughout proves indispensable to the album’s intimate-as-breathing feel. That would be Kieron Phelan, who yes is also doing multiple duty here – recorder, banjo, additional keys et al – but it’s his flute that brings the eloquence, whether out front or via trilling accents that add a combination old-world charm and an airy touch of intrigue.

Of the three tracks that deal – if one doesn’t miss one’s guess – with the challenges of being a musician/artist/songwriter, “The Ride” hits closest to scathing insofar as both the industry itself goes and Astor’s eventual reaction to the whole wild, unsettling circus of it. Riding, as it were, a propulsive and churning acoustic undercurrent, the beat of it points to the thrill while the words stop barely shy of indictment. “Smoke and mirrors, promises and lies,” fairground dogs barking all night, laughing (one suspects gabbling) showgirls, frightening gravity and too much noise, and though it’s all presented as a nightmare carnival scenario, it’s hard to escape the metaphor, the elevated joyride crash-and-burn of the singer’s heady years as part of the early Creation legend, the subsequent death-by-neglect of the Weather Prophets when McGee joined up with Warners Bros. etc. “I was never meant to go this high” goes part of the chorus as Pete the narrator is more or less pleading with the ride’s operator of let him get off, let him get out. Short, barely over two minutes, that “The Ride” manages to be simultaneously frantic and calmly deliberate perhaps speaks better than the lyrics to the careeningness of that mid-80s whirlwind and the extent to which its author has by now come to peace with it.

weather prophets

“Dunce,” by contrast, plows a less ascribable furrow. Sliding in with the usual gentle urgency, the flute immediately peeling off the melody, glockenspiel pinging distantly, bass seeming already in place before the song even begins and drums tuned so softly as to suggest maracas, Pete, over the subtlest murmur of low-end piano, lays out in his custom plainspoken manner the travails of being perceived as a bit of an idiot when in fact he’s in silent possession of the knowledge that the situation, whatever it is, is folly. The song could have any number of interpretations, one supposes – hell, even a literal one – but in the context of this album it’s nearly impossible not to read it as a dig at, say, the pony-tailed suits who know better than the artists themselves what sounds good, what’s right for the band, right for the album ad infinitum and who have clogged the arteries of the industry since Elvis brought the tablets up the river from Tupelo. “When the shiny ones speak / I just disappear” seems to say enough in eight unadorned words. Lovely, and lovingly arranged, the song rolls by almost unobtrusively but may in fact rank as Songbox’s most biting commentary, and, to Astor’s fans, the most worrying. After all, if indeed some know-nothings who think they know better are instructing the titular fool, in so many words, to “take his stupid hat and go home,” there’s at least a passing chance the singer might shrug his shoulders and heed their advice and it would be good night and au revoir Pete Astor, a thought that should not be more perished. But it’s the songwriter himself who suggests, in the most poignant fashion, that such a thought may not, in fact, be imperishable.

It isn’t hyperbole to say that “Mistress Of Song” is among the most haunting, lyrical and just plain damn beautiful songs you’ll hear this year. And next year and the year after that. Quite inescapably, the word ‘elegaic’ has cropped up in this review but here we have a song that defines ‘elegy.’ In tone and late-in-the-day perspective the most indebted to the spirit of Leonard Cohen as any song on the album (fittingly now in retrospect it was “Tower Of Song” that Astor covered on Cohen tribute LP I’m Your Fan) , it is ultimately the singer’s alone, as it is ultimately the singer alone, staring at that infinite space between eyes and wall, confronting his muse, confronting the betrayal of her promise, realizing with a quietly aggrieved resignation that the prize held out as lure all these years, after which he’s chased and grabbed, dodging all manner of obstacles thrown in his path, has in the end turned out to be ephemeral at best, poisonous at worst, almost certainly illusory.

The sparest of tracks on a spare album, “Mistress Of Song” essentially sits you down in a room by yourself with Astor in a chair straight in front of you and close. You notice the other musicians, what few there are, you hear their playing – the lonely electric piano chord the song hangs on at the start, the sad angel of an organ that soon speaks up from somewhere far overhead, the dolorous piano piano that sounds its toll like Jack Nitzsche’s ghost and deepens the song’s second dedication (“This is for you, O Mistress of Song”), the steady assured flute that shows up late in the hour to help bear the mistress out the door – but this is one-on-one, this is Pete Astor who has sat you down to tell you it might be over between him and the woman on whose arm he’s been traveling all these years and whose impetus has guided both this album up to this point and the whole of his creative life but whose impetuousness has, finally, shredded his patience. It is, in a word, devastating, though because it comes from who it comes from, it’s quietly, honestly devastating. The arrangement and playing are sufficiently sparse enough to unsettle, the melody a timeless piece of slow, Nick Drake-ian grandeur, the lyrics of course rueful to the bone, exquisite, but once the last line’s said (“And you’ve been lying to me”), once the flute quits and just as that last piano chord dies into the walls, there is, ever so slight and fleeting, a moment’s acoustic thump, and you can hear the room the song was made in, hear the silence of those present. Though nearly inaudible, it is, in its way, the loudest sound on the album, and certainly the most definitive. You’ll swallow hard, blink a few times and it will indeed seem as if it is all truly over. Then you’ll hit ‘play’ again.

‘Concise’ is perhaps not the most eloquent word with which to describe an artist’s work but Songbox is that exactly, concise and beautifully intuitive. Only one track, the ruminative Zen-like “Tree Of Birds,” manages the four-minute mark (4:03) while a tale of a continental murder worthy of an episode of Hercule Poirot (“The Perfect Crime,” soundtracked by an intoxicating mix of Mr Cohen with more than a soupcon of Serge Gainsbourg), full of defiant intrigue and wrapped in an enigmatic dreaminess, is dispensed in an almost stingy two minutes thirty-eight seconds, and that while twice using the word ‘labyrinthine.’ Nothing is wasted, everything is gained on this album. “Four Letter Word” is only a few ticks longer than “Perfect Crime” and yet succeeds in its aim to become among the finest paeans to love – and the survival of, through proverbial thick and thin – you’ve heard, exhibiting a profound power with nothing more than a dogged, direct simplicity (and OK, a fetching progression. Plus a heart-swelling recorder-driven interlude, but other than that…)

Though Songbox will appeal to any- and everyone that rates exacting and truly sublime songwriting, for those of us who have followed Pete from the start it’s an especially sweet missive, an intimate, elliptically confessional letter addressed to us personally. The way this album plays out, so earnest, stripped of artifice, composed with such delicate precision, it feels as if we’ve earned his trust over all these years and that trust is, some thirty years later, being paid back via this humbly handsome dividend, a gem perfected, its facets polished to a gratifying shine, sent out now to the lucky few.

By all means do what you have to do to be one of them. Find this record, track it down, play it the hundred times you’re going to play it then let it nestle up on the shelf where it deserves to be, next to Blood On The Tracks and, yes, leaning into Songs of Love and Hate.

[see interview with Pete Astor here]

– Dave Cantrell