- Astrel K
The Foreign Department: Vinyl LP
Release date: 8 March, 2024
“But into my miserable brain, always concerned with looking for noon at two o’clock"
- Charles Baudelaire (1869)
The Foreign Department is the second album by Astrel K, the solo project helmed by Stockholm-based British ex-pat, Rhys Edwards. Those already familiar with Edwards’ work will likely know him for fronting the cultishly great Ulrika Spacek, and given he operates as the principal songwriter in both projects, much of the same hallmarks of his cathartic, elliptical songwriting are present in Astrel K. Nonetheless, The Foreign Department feels like a rubicon moment of sorts, and the album that Edwards has unconsciously been working towards his entire creative life.
As a title, The Foreign Department offers an instructive guide for the listener, framing a life-in-transition/artist-in-exile document that maps two impromptu moves in twelve months for its songwriter: the first from London in pursuit of a relationship, the second between homes in Stockholm as that decade long relationship then suddenly dissolved. Indeed, diffusion, dissolution and reconstitution feel like appropriate touchstones for its recurring themes. Written amidst the flux of two states, at once isolated from home and then any established emotional anchor, the resulting eleven tracks came to represent a precognitive search for shifting identity and with it forming an unwittingly biographical record. It's commendable and somewhat telling that during this shake up, Edwards somehow landed upon his most realised and original work.
With a former life stripped away, there emerged an opportunity to reinvent a sense of self through art, now not just as a writer, but a composer also. Developing the confidence to arrange songs in ways he'd previously considered off-limits, while also taking cues from the opulent string and brass arrangements of records like Mercury Rev's Deserters' Songs and Death of A Ladies Man by Leonard Cohen, Edwards enlisted a range of performers to bring to life the mini-symphonies forming in his head. Perhaps it's inevitable that an album written while facing the consequences of being alone would eventually ossify around the process of bringing people together.
For all its troubled origins, The Foreign Department is a remarkably warm sounding collection. Edwards' lyrics are typically knotty and neurotic, dancing around the poetry of quarter-life anxiety, but the music itself is often joyous and even uplifting, the combination expressing that neat duality of melancholic euphoria. Edwards sings variously of crises, "torrid pieces of art", of "houses on fire" and not "having the guts for it", yet these troubling sentiments are framed by seemingly incongruous swelling strings, chirping horns or motorik percussion, creating that sense of pushing forward or floating above, of wrapping your troubles in dreams, a salve for the moments when you get a bit too much for yourself.
Lead single, 'Darkness At Noon', likely captures this all best. Named for the French idiom "midi a quatorze heures", the maddening idea of attempting the impossible for the sake of some greater possibly pointless cause, it directly grapples with the opposing notions of wanting and not wanting, of being here and being there at the same time. The conflicting and impossible self. It’s something Edwards addresses in the song at perhaps his most open, opining, “I know I want to be seen, but I hate most of what comes out of me”. And yet here is, putting it all out in the open and on the line, the dialectics of his enlightenment up on show.
RIYL: Stereolab, High Llamas, Deserter’s Songs era Mercury Rev, Death of A Ladies Man
Heavy Is the Head
Darkness At Noon
Birds In Vacant Lots
The Foreign Department
A Rudderless Ship
R U A Literal Child?
- Vinyl LP
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