Pete Astor’s Time On Earth explores life’s fundamentals; our mortality, our need for love, and our perpetually wondering as to why we’re here. He does it tenderly, often obliquely, but always incisively. In recent years he’s released some very impressive records but this could be his finest; reflecting from a point in the journey when the world becomes stranger and the patterns more complicated.
Beautifully recorded at Sean Read’s Famous Times Studio, carrying the trademark of quality that is Read’s production, it sounds fantastic with electronica, horns, and piano, the quiet efficiency of Ian Button and Andy Lewis, and some epic guitar from Neil Scott. Astor’s voice retains a boyish purity along with the clarity required for his thoughtful lyrics full of poetry, epiphany, and echoes down the corridor.
Bright synthesizer and choruses sweep us into the opening ‘New Religion’ and its parade of variable divinities, among them Marc Bolan, Johnny Thunders, Aleister Crowley. It’s immediately followed by ‘English Weather’; an epic song, over seven minutes long, like a prolonged sigh of resignation with that undercurrent of disappointment inhabiting so much of English experience; the cloudy picnic, or a rainy day at Lords; “better get used to it, English weather”. The instrumentation is fabulous, and horn and keyboard interludes perfection.
The song’s title hints of kinship to the memorable Stanley and Wiggs compilation of early 70s wistful, melodic pre-prog; these senses of half-recognition persist with something similar at work in the haunted ‘Grey Garden’, where meaning is simultaneously clear and evanescent. And of course while there are perils with love in age, it’s equally so for no-love in age as the heart-breaking ‘Stay Lonely’ elucidates with telling phrase; ‘a long way from home’ and ‘strangers in the room’.
Both the title track and ‘Miracle On The High Street’ present possible interventions of the divine in the ordinary life. The former charting the brief, barely-noticed incarnation of a bargain-basement bodhisattva, replete with traces of Sun Ra and Yeats in his wake; the latter a possible moment of grace in the daily round.
Lying in wait, as the penultimate cut, is ‘Undertaker’ a stark, face-on look at death, through the demise of a friend, with the realisation “you seemed so important, now that’s not the case anymore”. There’s an unspoken parallel thought, and it would take a very superficial listener not be affected by it, but getting through does bring the reward of ‘Fine And Dandy’ where death’s sting is smartly dodged.
‘Fine And Dandy’ locates Pete in his cohort as he channels Pat Fish, The Jazz Butcher, in what could serve as a perfect coda to Pat’s posthumous The Highest In The Land. This imagines Pat settled in a reconstituted Fishy Mansions in the Elysian Fields with wine and fags, and Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers for company. It’s very impressive especially as his voice here becomes noticeably more raffish and the odd g gets dropped.
It’s a gorgeous, generous conclusion to a quite superb collection of songs, and will rightly stand as a career highlight.