Home Music Rediscover: Virginia Astley: Hope in a Darkened Heart

Rediscover: Virginia Astley: Hope in a Darkened Heart

“I think I sit down and play the piano when I’m feeling fed up.” This isn’t the confession of a musician known. In a 1983 program for Radio Greenwich Sound, Virginia Astley told an interviewer. Anger seems like an unlikely inspiration for the British singer-songwriter, daughter of TV composer Edwin Astley and sister-in-law to Pete Townshend. Astley’s music has a surface cheer and a deep introspection that seems to emerge from restraint and a rich inner life. What emerged from that frustration was an air of innocence and melancholy, and that runs throughout her 1986 album Hope in a Darkened Heart, lending an edge to its gorgeous, wistful arrangements.

Astley’s second album followed up her 1983 debut From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a set of instrumentals which evoked the pastoral sounds of the English countryside. On the surface, her first album of pop songs continued to plumb the sunshine that her debut title suggests. But soon the anxiety inherent in the Where We Feel Secure part comes to the forefront as Astley emerges from the metaphorical gardens.

Ryuichi Sakamoto produced and arranged Hope in a Darkened Heart, and his own melancholy sheen comes through from the opener. “Some Small Hope,” a duet with David Sylvian, launches the album with one of its best melodies. Astley’s diminutive voice suggests childhood, but her mind doesn’t; her first words on the album: “All those dreams lie unfulfilled.” Sakamoto’s arrangement recalls his own work, building up a lush orchestral sound around Astley’s choirboy timbre. A synth pulse suggests electronic crickets, reliable as a metronome and the passage of time, the spell broken by a dissonant middle section that seems to echo the decay of a line that Astley and Sylvian sing in tandem: “Like a corpse deep in the earth I’m so alone.” It’s a modestly gorgeous piece, and when the synths open up in big chords, it lets the light in on all that despair: “Now you’ve gone/ Time will pass/ Friends will leave/ Close my eyes/ Far away/ Some small hope.

On paper, those lyrics are Joy Division-level depressing, but resilience is built into this music, the synth washes and simple melodies providing the promise of its title. “Father” is perhaps darker still, the bleak gothic mode shifting to the bleak reality of abandonment, dressed in a deceptively pretty song. Such bitterness continues in “So Like Dorian,” in which Astley’s thoughts return to death, this time in rebuke to a lover who betrayed her: “I’ve tasted your tongue/ Like a worm from the grave/ Had you inside me/ Then like a rock beside me.

“Some Small Hope” and the ironically dirge-like “Charm” were both released as singles from Hope in a Darkened Heart, but the album’s centerpiece is a re-recorded version of a single released three years earlier. With an angelic intro that filters bright dream pop through baroque sensibilities, “Love’s A Lonely Place to Be” didn’t make a dent in the charts, but it was one of the more enchanting singles of a largely bombastic decade. Astley told Radio Greenwich Sound that she wrote it in the aftermath of a bad relationship. The irresistible intro and sing-song “ha ha” seems to promise cheer, but this loveliness again is the conduit for regret. “You’re not my friend/ And I’m not your friend/ How can we deceive/ Ourselves like this?” Like many of Astley’s melodies, this sounds like a nursery rhyme, and like many nursery rhymes, there’s a unsettling undercurrent to these songs of seeming innocence. Astley follows this with a rerecording of the From Gardens favorite “A Summer Long Since Passed,” and the verb tense says it all: the idyllic time is gone.

Still, the morose lyrics are redeemed by music that can’t help but shine a light through the darkness. Hope earned some college radio airplay in the U.S. at the time, but, perhaps thanks in part to Sakamoto’s contribution, Astley seemed more appreciated in Japan, and in the ‘90s she released two more solo albums on Nippon Columbia. After all these years, her music seems to be on the upswing, with a major revisit of From Gardens on Pitchfork and airplay on Gideon Coe’s BBC radio program. She’s become active on Bandcamp, where she makes digital versions of all her albums available. And, although “Father” indicates a fraught childhood, she tells her Bandcamp fans that she’s thinking of recording one of her father’s songs. Maybe, even in the face of despair, there’s hope after all.

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