I Was An Astronaut
Derry singer-songwriter Conor McAteer takes a giant leap forward in a controlled and cohesive fourth album bursting with love in all its forms
Five songs into I Was An Astronaut, the fourth album from Derry singer-songwriter Conor McAteer, comes (and then goes) a short, startling piece of music simply titled 'Interlude No. 1'. It begins conventionally enough with some of McAteer's characteristic finger-picked acoustic guitar, supplemented, like several tracks here, by a few very gentle electronic bleeps and blurps – like underwater text messages.
Then the vocal begins, fragile in tone and subject matter: 'None of the stars above... / Nothing I’ve dreamed of... / I’m simply bursting with love.' Having reached this definitive, uninhibited conclusion so quickly, the song has nowhere else to go. So it doesn't try to, winding to a gentle halt in little over a minute.
Like Radiohead's 'Fitter Happier' from their 1997 masterpiece OK Computer, it's barely a song, yet it also feels like the key to everything else going on around it. For this is a record bursting with love in all its forms: romantic, platonic, domestic, the fear and pain of loss and the strength and joy of new life and old bonds.
Written and recorded both at home and in the studio over the past two years, I Was An Astronaut has had a lengthy gestation period, and yet it's a surprisingly cohesive collection, threaded together with evocative nautical imagery which surfaces throughout. Roughly half of the songs explore failed or faltering relationships with varying degrees of acceptance and acrimony, but the record as a whole is characterised by tremendous variety and creativity.
Opener 'Cricklewood' has the classic air of prime Simon and Garfunkel or Elliott Smith. Live favourite 'Get Over Him (And Get Under Me)', meanwhile, plays knowingly with the clichéd nature of its scenario, but at its core retains a painful rawness that keeps it clear of self-parody.
Some of the real discoveries here though are those tracks that look beyond heartbreak to articulate feelings of bewilderment unique to adulthood rather than adolescence. With lyrics drawing from both Greek myth and the Seamus Heaney poem 'Album', standout track 'Atlas' turns the shifting of generational burdens into an unlikely anthem.
It's among several instances where McAteer's literary and cultural influences are more palpable than any overt indications of his own listening habits. Indeed even the cover art, a 1873 piece by French painter and illustrator Jules Tavernier, was chosen as it reminded McAteer of reading the Dickens short story The Signalman at school.
Elsewhere, 'Heart + the Harbour' takes inspiration from a story from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, exporing guilt and betrayal through the lens of a young sailor away at sea. In 'This is the Last Time', the self-deception of a domestic abuser is frighteningly sugar-coated in the album's most hummable melody.
Proving that the power of 'Interlude No. 1' doesn't just lie in its brevity, closing track 'Boats' takes things in the opposite direction. A sweeping culmination of the maritime theme (also evident in 'Shipwreck'), this is a fully-fledged, multi-part epic, nearly seven minutes long, breaking new ground for McAteer.
Though much of the music on this album has been captured in sparse, lo-fi surroundings, in moments like this he makes effective use of his hand-picked support cast of studio experts. With piano, strings and brass building and crashing around layered vocals, this is a journey in every sense.
A skilful and controlled album, I Was An Astronaut is a giant leap forward for this talented artist, and a record to cherish for anyone who has moved beyond their Teenage Kicks.
by Charles McCann