Astronautalis is one of the most underrated storytellers in music today.
Astronautalis is one of the most underrated storytellers in music today. Every song he writes weaves wonderfully rich lyrical anecdotes that pull you in, whether it’s about himself, fictional characters or people from American history. Although his early work had many strong tunes, 2008’s genre-defying Pomegranate was his first truly excellent collection of tales.
All it takes is the first track, “The Wondersmith and His Sons,” to get hooked. Over a jaunty piano, Astronautalis sings and raps as a member of a family of con artists. He speeds through lines of deceit, woe and death, but does it with such panache that you can’t help but root for him. It’s like the music equivalent of Goodfellas, where the charm of criminals almost puts you on their side until the veneer fades. Or as Astronautalis sings, “The tragic flaw of charming men/ Is exactly as it seems/ Too much grease/ Can break down a machine.” The main character of “Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot” is similar, Astronautalis rapping over a warped solo violin and muffled drums about his dirt-gathering schemes against his co-workers. With a couple of lines, he sums up the flaws of each member of the office, only to be undone by his own devices.
While Astronautalis has no problem making shady characters fascinating, often his best work is found in those pushing to do the best they can, despite obstacles of authority, fate or loss. On “17 Summers,” he duets with Sarah Jaffe about a relationship fortified in a backdrop of war. “The world has wisdom but never enough,” he sings wearily, over a gentle, flickering piano melody and regal brass. Jaffe joins in again for “Two Years Before the Mast,” where she is snuck onboard a 19th century ship by her sailor lover, risking punishment and death to stay together.
Other songs on Pomegranate pull just as much pathos out of real historical figures. Over the heavy rhythms of “The Case of William Smith,” Astronautalis chronicles the narrative of the titular professor, who was accused of heresy for studying theology without taking the Bible as literally true. The song paints a scene of fury from the religious crowd, but also of Smith’s commitment to his work. “Covenant in question/ And career upon the line/ I suffer your reckless sanctions/ With a clarity of mind,” Astronautalis raps rebelliously and brilliantly. But the best of his historical songs here is the anthemic “Trouble Hunters,” which brings the fighting spirit of Revolutionary War soldiers to the forefront. Even as they know they’re likely to die against an onslaught of the British army, they brag that “Hell ain’t big enough to hold us back.” It’s a proclamation of defiance made to be shouted out.
Part of what makes Pomegranate work so well is the fantastic production work by John Congleton. He and Astronautalis were perfectly aligned on how to create the best musical beddings for each song. “Secrets of the Undersea Bell” is a modern sea shanty, electric guitar riffs rubbing elbows with bouncy keys. It’s a foot-stomping, fun time. For the laid-back, farmland vibe of “An Episode of Sparrows,” a colonial-era sounding flute pipes out the jovial melody. On “My Old Man’s Badge,” Astronautalis’ exhausted, weighted singing is balanced by spacey, alien synths. Hell, the second to last song on the record, titled “The Most Important Track on the Album,” is three minutes of silence. That’s a ballsy, John Cage style move.
To close, Astronautalis is joined by P.O.S. on “The Story of My Life” for another superb statement of resilience. Alongside a dry, picked-out guitar riff, the two exchange lines about the harshness of life, only to sing together in the chorus, “You can find a swarm where the stingers hold back/ You can find a warm spot in a cold snap.” Pomegranate is not just about resistance in the face of overwhelming challenges, but about the small moments of victory that are hard-won. When it feels like aspects of the world are getting crazier and crueler, Astronautalis’ tales are a salve and a reminder of the need for perseverance, no matter the odds.