Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
Released November, 1968

This week’s guest reviewer is Ash, a young entrepreneur, coffee addict, freelance designer, musician and Tegan & Sara devotee from Brisbane. She recently launched her new boutique t-shirt label Dure & Kaufmann, which we think is pretty awesome. Just like Ash. 

I need to confess that before Ange set me the task of reviewing “Astral Weeks” I had not sat down and listened to this album in its entirety. Explained by some as fine art, with words like surrealist and stream-of-conciseness used it is one of a kind. This album is an anomaly in a sense that nothing like it came before and from what I feel nothing really like it after in Morrison’s career. There are remnants of this album in almost everything Morrison did after the fact but nothing in its proportion ever again. Maybe this album was born from absolute relief, being his first album recorded after the revenge songs from the Bert Burns record dispute. Morrison had said around the time of recording this album that he was starving, literally, and I believe this is what he needed creatively and financially “to be born again”.

I am overwhelmed with the ideas and creative way of this album, sometimes pressure can break your creative mould and not in a positive way, there was a chance that Morrison could have released a terrible rendition of what he had hoped and dreamed to achieve, but he stood strong, truly gifted and freed from “the man’s” strong hold through “Astral Weeks”. Something that struck me early on about this album was Morrison’s age, he would have been around the age I am now, 24, when this album was recorded and knowing this makes it hard to not note the sophistication of the album both lyrically and instrumentally. There is so much true Van Morrison concentrated in this album but it is also fleeting being so early on in his career, as any good artist knows, it takes time to first know what is truly great, know if it is truly yours and then refine it.

When I first sat down with this album it did take a lot of concentration for me to really listen to the songs which by Morrison standards are quite lengthy. I am a real lover of lyrics and I found it hard to follow Morrison with some of the diction. Several rotations later and I have realised it is not all about lyrics and not all about the musical composition either, it is about how you move through the album and maybe how the album moves with you, and it grows on you. In comparison to the Van Morrison I grew up with it is, quite frankly, a world away but so integral to his later albums. “Astral Weeks” is like a wooden link in a metal chain, listen to “Moodance” and any track from “Astral Weeks” and the variation becomes painfully clear, but by doing this it became apparent to me how important the creative purge was to his growing and progression as an artist. The title track would have to be my most loved, with the opening line my favourite of the whole album. Any true Morrison fan should really hear this one out, if only to know where he came from.

I remember listening to my “Best Of Van Morrison” CD as a teenager. It’s got some great stuff on it: ‘Moondance’, ‘Domino’, ‘And It Stoned Me’, ‘Bright Side of the Road’ and the list goes on. I also remember constantly skipping ‘Sweet Thing’ because I found it tedious. Lucky me, now I have a whole album of ‘Sweet Thing’s to listen to. My first listen of this album flummoxed me. It sounded like Van was playing/singing whatever he felt like at the time, and the other musicians just followed along as best they could. I have since discovered this isn’t far from the truth. Cut in only two days, most of the lyrics were improvised on the spot. To quote Iago from Aladdin: “I think I’m going to have a heart attack and die from not surprise!” From ‘Astral Weeks’: “I see you know he’s got clean clothes/A-puttin’ on his little red shoes/A-pointin’ a finger at me” – hmmm. From ‘Madame George’: “That’s when you fall/Whoa, that’s when you fall/Yeah, that’s when you fall/When you fall into a trance” – okay. All of these songs seem to be searching for themselves fruitlessly. When some of them fade out it feels like a mercy killing; it just doesn’t come soon enough for ‘Madame George’ though! The arrangements come across as clunky and crowded too. The one near exception is ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ which benefits from a snappy pace and some wonderful brass work. Oh, and it almost has a chorus! The bassist appears to be playing a different song though. This is a shame, because most of the time, the bass playing is best thing about this album. It’s not an unpleasant listen, it’s just boring. However, it does make for nice background music. This isn’t the Van I enjoy. I like songs.

“Astral Weeks” is a hard album hard to catagorize as it doesn’t really fit into any genre. It is often referred to as a ‘song cycle’. It has been said that “the album embraces a form of symbolism that would eventually become a staple of Morrison’s songs, equating earthly love and heaven, or as close as a living being can approach it.” When I listen to it I’m taken to another place where I can sit in the music and just be. It’s a rare thing to find this in an album that was released to a large audience and critically well received. To me it feels like it is the stream of consciousness of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man, trying to make sense of everything around him. He’s realising the enormity of that and the duality of the beauty and fragility of life. In the music you can hear the pain that comes with this awareness, but there is also a beautiful hope that swells around the pain in the way the instruments swell around the vocals. I don’t necessarily understand what he’s singing about on some of the songs but it doesn’t matter because I feel it. Morrison himself describes it best – “I’m not surprised that people get different meanings out of my songs, but I don’t wanna give the impression that I know what everything means ’cause I don’t. . . . There are times when I’m mystified. I look at some of the stuff that comes out, y’know. And like, there it is and it feels right, but I can’t say for sure what it means.” Listening to “Astral Weeks” is akin to a meditative experience for me. Best listened to at night where the dark and stillness give the songs space to reveal themselves.

Someone says to me Van Morrison and I think of ‘Moondance’, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Bright Side of the Road’. They’re all easy listening, radio friendly songs. So when I was preparing to listen to “Astral Weeks”, I expected things along a similar line. I was not expecting a shambled mismatch of noises and painful sounding wailing. It doesn’t take long for things to start getting offensive. The title track starts off pretty enough. Flute tends to make everything seem pretty. But soon after, all the musicians seem to be playing with no respect of rhythm, and Van sorta sounds like he’s having a stroke… And is there an out of tune guitar in there? Sadly, the vast majority of this album carries on in this vain, and remarkably, it was well received be critics everywhere… Rolling Stone even named it at number nineteen on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. NINETEEN! To be honest, I struggled to find one song on “Astral Weeks” that I actually enjoyed listening to. At all. The closest thing I got to enjoyment was the track I had to wait the longest for, ‘Slim Slow Slider’. It’s slow, so there’s not the frantic, everyone trying to play at once kinda thing going on. It also features a lot of flute and soprano saxophone, which I’m always ok with. Also, ‘Slim Slow Slider’ is only three minutes long, which given the context of this album, is automatically endearing. I’m fairly sure a lot of people absolutely adore “Astral Weeks”, but it’s not for me. Morrison’s voice drives me crazy. It’s kind of Dylan-esque, if Bob Dylan had a retarded cousin that found some random musicians that had never played with anyone else before, and they recorded an album, the result would be “Astral Weeks”.

I’ve always listened to Van Morrison’s songs in isolation, and never having listened to a full album I was surprised to see the majority of his music has a free-form, stream of consciousness kind of vibe to it. At times his throaty vocal is completely out of time with the musical accompaniment and Morrison sings as if in a trance, and as a result, this hypnotic album imbues a certain air of meditation. On the other hand, the album also has a surprisingly jazzy edge to it, with Morrison hiring jazz musicians to be his session band. It makes for a strange but good concoction of themes and genres; Folk lyrics centred around love, loss, nostalgia and death, Celtic elements such as the addition of a fiddle, coupled with a killer double-bass bass line (by critically acclaimed jazz musician Richard Davis). ‘Sweet thing’ is a song that was introduced to me by Ang a few years ago, and still remains my favourite Van Morrison song to this day.  It’s a pretty song that paints a picture of a blissful love. The one song that really epitomises the “Astral Weeks” sound is ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. It’s an all-over-the-place big band show tune –sounding song. Even with that crazy frantic bass, Morrison’s high-pitched cry, scat singing, it still maintains a folk-rock edge. I can see why “Astral Weeks” took a while to be appreciated, it probably would require quite a few listens before you really would start to get what Morrison was hoping to achieve.

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