ALBUM REVIEW: Rick Astley Reinvents His Sound Surprisingly Well on '50'
    • FRIDAY, OCTOBER 07, 2016

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner


    Alright, confession time: I like Rick Astley. No, I'm not kidding. In fact, I'll take it further: I love Rick Astley.

    Even while everything I know about my musical taste should violently reject his cheese-camp synth pop and "adorkable" love songs, I've enjoyed Astley's music ever since I was first tricked into listening to his smooth, velvety crooning on YouTube. I can't really explain why I love Rick's music so much, I guess for the same reason people eat cheesecake: It's loaded with sugar, almost unbearably sweet, and probably isn't the healthiest for you, but goddamn if it doesn't make me feel so happy inside when I eat it up. So sorry in advance if this review comes off as ever-so-slightly bias. I'll try to contain my fangirling.

    It's hard for an artist to be taken seriously after the Internet claims their artistic soul and credibility for all eternity, and few people may understand that as well as Astley. But honestly, even if Rickrolling never saw the light of day, it'd be hard to argue Rick's music would've stood the tests of time (despite how much I personally adore it). With a sound fueled by synths, electronic drums, and boyishly harmless lyrics, Astley's hits have aged just as well as neon leggings or Joel Schumacher's bat-nipples. Rick's shtick was meant to live and die in the 80s, and aside from the Internet's granddaddy of pranks, "Never Gonna Give You Up," thats basically what happened. That is, until now: For the first time in over a decade, Astley returns to the music with 50, an album that shows him reflecting on his past (he turned 50 this year) while also attempting to reinvent his sound for a new age.

    Within the record's first few minutes, it's clear that Rick isn't planning on riding the nostalgia train for the rest of his career. The opening track, "Keep Singing," traded out dated synths for guitars, a choir, and a heavy blues-gospel sound. The entire record takes major influences from gospel, rock, and blues, which may leave some Astley fans who were hoping for the next "Together Forever" a little disappointed. Nonetheless, you have to give Rick credit for trying something new so far into his career, and the different direction in sound makes for a surprisingly diverse and unexpected record for the 80s pop star.

    "Angels On My Side," the second single from the album along with "Keep Singing," is an upbeat, catchy tune that definitely has a more rock/gospel edge, but is just as danceable as Rick's early work. "I Like the Sun" has a slight U2 vibe to it, "Wish Away" has a cool indie-rock guitar riff going on, and "Pray With Me," a track clearly influenced by gospel in both sound and subject matter, shows off a surprisingly convincing Stevie Wonder-esque groove. "Dance" is probably the closest the record gets to Rick's early synth-pop sound, but at the same time lays down some up-front religious imagery about God and the Devil having a conversation in the park. It's cheesy, not going to deny that, but so is basically all of Rick's music. If you're not going into this thing expecting that, you're not gonna have a good time.

    As much as I would love to call this album flawless and leave it at that, there are a couple issues worth pointing out. "Let It Be Tonight" was an unfortunately weak closer, as its spoken word and synthed-out voice tipped the cheese meter from endearing to cringy for me. A few of the songs ended kind of abruptly, like the fade-out was supposed to be added in post but it never was, and really the production in general could've been better. For an album that shoots for a gritty, natural rock sound, the sleek production polish felt a little out of place at times.

    Regardless of these issues, I still really enjoyed 50, a lot more than I thought I would. This record is more varied than anyone was probably expecting from Rick, including his own fans, and you have to commend the guy for taking such a drastic stylistic turn. It honestly would've been comical if Astley tried to relive his teen-pop heyday at 50 years old, and yeah, the record sounds a little Adult Contemporary at times, but when you think about it, that's basically Rick's target audience. The teenagers who listened to his bubble-gum pop hits from the 80s are now in their 40s and 50s just like Astley; young music dorks like me are only the fringe demographic. The man's grown up along with his devoted fans, and the album does a great job at showing Astley's maturity and evolution as an artist.

    To put it all in a nutshell: Is this a straight-up retread down memory lane for Astley? No. Is there a "Never Gonna Give You Up 2.0" on this record? Nope. Is it a solid album that shows an artist reinventing himself with unexpectedly successful results? I'd say so. I never gave up on Rick Astley, and I'm glad to say that with 50, he hasn't let me down.

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