Much like Luke Haines, Peter Astor (known here as Pete) is one of those “old-fashioned” British songwriters who believe that a good song is what it is all about. You string a couple of chords together, you come up with articulate lyrics and an articulate vocal melody, you take some time arranging (not embellishing) your tune – and there you go. The rest is more or less arbitrary and superfluous. The fact that tons of contemporary artists can get away with existing on what is essentially entirely superficial is a travesty, and if anything, Astor’s recently released Songbox is a brilliant testimony to the unfading power of a good song.
Throughout his understated and relatively obscure twenty-odd career Peter Astor has done some great pop (mostly his two 80’s bands, The Loft and The Weather Prophets) and some weak pop (his bloodless early 90’s solo efforts were efforts indeed). But recently he’s been keeping a particularly low profile: besides the surprising reunion of The Loft (in 2006) and a 2004 limited-release solo album, he’s been more engaged with his folk/electronic instrumental band Ellis Island Sound. But it is not as if Songbox was all that unexpected; after all, having once written at least one classic pop song, you are more than likely to come back for more.
On these masterful and almost achingly well-written 11 new songs, Pete sounds like a cross between a better-singing Leonard Cohen and a mellower, more cheerful Luke Haines (whose terrific new album about British wrestling is also out now) – certainly not a bad thing. The richness of instrumentation, and you get to hear everything, from Glockenspiel to chilling clarinets, never stands in the way of the actual songs, and only emphasizes their stark yet delicate simplicity. The folk-pop charms of ‘Tiny Town’, the mysterious and waltzy ‘The Perfect Crime’, the unforgettable might-be-hit ‘The Ride’, etc. – these are all convincing, concise, classic songs that never really threaten to overstay their welcome. When discussing Songbox, the key word could be “consistent” – even though ‘Dunce’ might well be the standout, with its bittersweet melody and heartfelt singing.
The last song on the album is called ‘Mistress of Song’, which is a sad, anguished, gorgeous ode to, well, Mistress of Song: “But lately I’ve had this feeling, I just can’t quite believe; I’ve been following you all these years, and you’ve been lying to me”. It’s as close as you could get to a songwriter’s heart, and it’s as fitting an end to this album as was only conceivable. While not perfect, Songbox should go down in history as Pete Astor’s best album, and one of the most striking and honest tributes to the power of the song.
Released August 2011 by Second Language