SAY THE NAME Rick Astley in 2016 and you’ll probably get a reply involving his 1987 smash ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, a brightly spangled devotional transformed into an internet punchline somewhere in the late 2000s.
Its overwhelming sincerity helped make it a perfect “got your nose”-type fake-out — its beamed-in drums, high-gloss synths, and Astley’s rich burr combined to make a love song that summed up writing/producing team Stock Aitken Waterman’s vision of the ’80s, when bright emotions didn’t need to come with a wink in order to register on the pop culture radar.
In Astley’s biggest hits — ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and his debut album Whenever You Need Somebody‘s other number one hit, ‘Together Forever’ — the lush production and fantasias into various keyboard sounds were grounded by his seemingly impossible voice. It was an anticipation of Eddie Vedder’s similarly low-register vocals via Bill Withers, shot through with muscular brio and all-in enthusiasm. Lost in the shuffle of Rickrolls was the fact that the second single released from Astley’s debut was a cover of the soul standard ‘When I Fall In Love’, his version a sincere proclamation of lifetime fealty nestled amid syrupy strings and harp arpeggios. Sure, the Stock Aitken Waterman sheen was key to his popularity, but close listeners knew where his musical heart lay.
Astley’s transformation into the internet’s favourite diversionary tactic came as he was renegotiating his relationship with the music business, which he’d left in 1993. (“I was a young guy and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be doing that every single day of my life. I want to hang out with my friends. I’ve made a lot of money. I want to spend some of it. I want to do the things I want to do,’ ” he told Rolling Stone in August.) In 2001, he came back with Keep It Turned On, which wasn’t released in the States. A 2005 covers collection called Portrait came and went, and a 2013 full-length, My Red Book, was announced then scrapped. 50, which comes out tomorrow, is Astley’s first release of original material in 15 years. (He’ll play his first New York show in more than 25 years tonight, at Town Hall.)
In addition to the online prank that bears his name, there’s been another relevant development since Keep It Turned On: the rise of Adele, whose emotional kaffeeklatsch brand of blue-eyed soul has been one of the few feel-good stories to emerge from the music business’s woeful 21st century. That explains the title of 50, and it also explains the album’s sonic themes. Gone are the synth zaps and drum-pad beats of yore; instead Astley, who produced and played all the instruments on 50, really leans into the pop-r&b aesthetic, bracketing his voice with piano whomps and choir whoops over tracks that have a lived-in familiarity.
The themes of 50, however, do surprise at times. There are lots of references to religion, from the saints spotted on ‘Coming Home Tonight’ to the revivalist-preacher pose he takes on the vampy ‘Pray With Me’. And then there’s ‘God Says’, which turns out to be a feather-light shuffle about how dance can give even the devil the power to be a good person. But it’s probably not surprising that he’s getting reflective; for all the talk about fifty being the new forty or thirty or eighteen, getting older in a world that fetishizes the young can have odd effects on the conscience.
The flip side to that spiritual yearning is that Astley’s maturity has also allowed him to take control and bring back the memory of that ‘When I Fall In Love’ cover from all those years ago — his voice is a little rounder on the bottom and somewhat weathered sounding, but his embrace of time’s inevitable passage is no joke.
© Maura Johnston, The Village Voice, 6 October 2016