Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Van Morrison Astral Weeks (1968)


After fronting the Belfast band Them, who pounded out a sweaty brand of r&b-based rock n’ roll, Van Morrison banged out some solo singles for Bert Berns’ Bang Records, the most notable of which was the classic “Brown Eyed Girl” (recommended listening: the 2-cd The Story Of Them Featuring Van Morrison and The Bang Masters, respectively).

When Berns released an album (Blowin’ Your Mind) without his consent it began Morrison’s longstanding distrust of the music business, and when Berns died Van joined Warner Bros., where he immediately delivered this amazing album, which defies description or complete comprehension. Recorded in a single whirlwind 48 hour session, Astral Weeks is simply one of the greatest albums of any kind ever created. Upon first listen this might not be obvious, as Van does away with standard song structures and immediate accessibility, instead conceiving the album as an entire entity whose otherworldly intensity and magical air of mystery reveals hidden riches with repeat introductions.

Musically mixing together Celtic folk with American jazz and pop, Morrison had the benefit of working with stellar jazz musicians such as Connie Kay (drums), Richard Davis (bass), Jay Berliner (classical guitar), and John Payne (flute, soprano saxophone), who crafted the delicately textured melodies behind which Van The Man delivers a vocal performance for the ages. Van’s poetic, stream of consciousness lyrics are supposed to comprise some sort of song cycle, but like most of Bob Dylan (who likewise benefited from some stellar performances from unsung heroes in his backing bands) at his best, this album is all the more special for its inscrutability, as I myself revel in the evocative images of Van’s reminisces about “Madame George” and the rest of the gang down on “Cyprus Avenue” without really understanding any of it, or necessarily wanting to. No, this album is more about an elusive magical quality than anything else, even songs, despite the fact that some of these songs are absolutely spectacular.

For example, there’s the title track, which has an airy bass/flute led melody and arguably my favorite Van (or anybody, for that matter) vocal ever (I can hear him singing “there you go, there you go” in my head right now), while “Sweet Thing,” with it’s almost hooky string arrangement, is the closest thing here to an accessible pop melody (it was later covered by The Waterboys, among others). “Cyprus Avenue” is another highlight whose instruments (acoustic guitar, harpsichord, bass, strings, flute, drums) flutter about as Van looks back at what he himself describes as “a mystical place,” while “The Way Young Lovers Do” sees Van at his most poetic and romantic.

The song, which was later covered by spiritual successor Jeff Buckley, is the only really rocking song on the album, ironic given that the album always appears on “greatest rock albums of all-time” polls. Love the trumpet solo too, but this song and every other song here takes a backseat to “Madame George,” a 9-minute epic that even Van himself (a notorious crank pot) likes. Again, I’ll let others rack their brains for an interpretation, as Van allegedly waxes poetic about a lovelorn drag queen and other assorted losers, but to me this song’s magic (and yes, magic is the right word) is all about its mystical atmosphere.

The strings on the song actually sound like they’re weeping, and Van soulfully sings like a man who knows true pain, despite the fact that he was only 23 years old when this album was recorded. OK, I’ll relent and suggest that this is probably because the song is really about outgrowing certain friendships and moving on, something that Van was likely experiencing at the time (having left Them and pursuing the nomadic lifestyle of a rock n’ roller).

You see, this album isn’t that inscrutable, but most of the songs here are open to interpretation. Perhaps “Beside You,” “Ballerina,” and “Slim Slow Slider” fail to match the five aforementioned songs, but again Van’s mesmerizing vocals (i.e. “you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out”) make them well worth hearing, as his vocal sweeps and swooshes dash about his brilliantly poetic wordplay. Simply put, Astral Weeks, Morrison’s most magnificent and fervent flight of fancy, is a spellbindingly intense effort that takes you away to a special place, and despite its often-bleak subject matter it offers an uplifting, spiritual listening experience that makes me feel good whenever I hear it.

Easily ensconced among my top five favourite albums of all-time, Astral Weeks is a one of a kind listening experience that deserves to endure forever.


May 13, 2013 - Posted by | Van Morrison Astral Weeks |

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