Rick Astley making the best music of his career

April 18, 2018

Rick Astley released a hit single in 1987 that, at least superficially, still defines his career. “Never Gonna Give You Up” was a No. 1 single in 25 countries, and turned the then-21-year-old musician into a pop superstar.

But those not familiar with Astley other than “rickroll” memes — in which internet links connect to the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” — may be surprised to learn Astley is producing what is arguably the best work of his career.

“We’ve had quite a bit of success with the album ’50′ in the UK, which came out for my 50th birthday,” says Astley, who performs April 19 at Mr. Smalls in Millvale. “That did really, really well, and that was unexpected. I did that record for fun; it wasn’t a commercial venture, and lo and behold it did really well.”

“50” may have resonated with listeners in the U.K., where it reached No. 1, because Astley was able to control every aspect of the album. Astley not only wrote the songs, but also played all the music.

On songs from “50” including “Pray with Me” and “Let it Rain,” there’s a gospel music-like quality that reveals an artist at peace with his life and career. A line from the song “Keep Singing” – “Found my religion swimming in a choir of voices/and I knew that I’d been spared” – takes on a new and deeper meaning.

“I was writing songs that meant something to me and there were a couple of subjects where I was looking at my own upbringing and things that I was facing,” Astley says. “I don’t go to church, I don’t follow a particular religion. But I certainly have faith, and I guess a lot of my faith comes from the people around me and the people I meet. I think you can find something, not only being on stage and performing for people, but performing with people. It definitely lifts you.”

Astley, who first started singing in a church choir in his native Lancashire, England, was reached while he was in Toronto. He was scheduled to perform that evening with a choir his wife and manager, Lene Bausager, found on Facebook doing a version of “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

“I have to credit my wife for this,” Astley says, laughing. “She said, ‘If they’re around, we’re going.’ I was a choir boy when I was young, and whether you want to bring religion or faith into it or not, there’s something that happens when you make music with other people.”

Astley also was invited to sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” in a recent BBC tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber. His concerts often feature imaginative covers of songs ranging from “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC to the Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” Last year the Foo Fighters paid tribute to Astley by inviting him on stage at London’s O2 Arena to sing a head-banging version of “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Astley’s new single, “Walk Like a Panther,” was the title track to a movie of the same name directed by Dan Cadan.

Life is good, and Astley is more than thankful for his good fortune and a maturity born from his experiences.

“I’m in a very different place in my life in terms of the emotions that go through me as a human being than when I was 21 and had my hits,” Astley says. “I was a kid, really. Some people are very mature at 21, but I don’t think I was. I come from a very small town and I was very green. I didn’t know much about anything, to be quite honest. I just had a love of music and I think the things that go through my mind and through my heart are very different than when I was having my hits.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.