Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Another album review from the vaults as I continue to cannibalize my younger self’s work for present-day self’s own enjoyment and sense of fulfillment.

Astral Weeks is an album unlike anything else in Van Morrison’s catalogue. The fact that this can be said about virtually every single album he’s made doesn’t discount the uniqueness of this record, nor does it mean there is no cohesion or a sense of connected style across his body of work. It simply means that Van is flexible enough to be able to ingest a huge number of styles, synthesize them, and make them his own.

Astral Weeks is Van’s first true solo album, and it marks a radical departure from his work with the R&B combo Them. The making of the album is an amazing story–originally, Van signed to Bang Records after he left Them in 1968, and recorded songs such as “TB Sheets” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” for the label. However, they wanted him to replicate “Brown-Eyed Girl” with other singles, and Morrison wanted to follow a very different muse. He was under contract to record a set number of songs for Bang, so he went about recording a couple dozen song tidbits that are so completely throwaway that even completists and total fanatics dismiss them as irrelevant. His contractual obligations thus fulfilled, Van struck out on his own, eventually landing with Warner Brothers.

The album he recorded for Warner Bros. came from left field. He had the engineer for the record hire a group of session players, none of whom had ever even met each other, let alone Van. They recorded the album in the space of a few nights, coming together in the studio at the tail end of the night after they’d been playing with other bands and musicians all evening. This adds to the tone of late night, pre-dawn dreaminess that pervades the record. Musically, the instrumentation–which is very sparse, consisting mostly of acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, light drums (usually just the cymbals and high-hat), a few dashes of strings, a flute every now and then, and Van’s vocals–melds together well, especially for musicians who had never really worked together and didn’t really know the songs beforehand. The music threatens to float off into the ether at any moment, and words like “effervescent” and “ephemeral” are good descriptors. Most of the songs consist of rather repetitive chord progressions with little variation within a single song, giving the songs a pulse that lulls you.

Thematically, Van attempts to create a new mythology of his hometown of Belfast. The songs not only address the town, but Van’s attempts to come to grips with where he came from and where he is going, which is far away from home. However, he can never truly escape Belfast, as he is always “caught one more time” there, unable to truly let go of the past, but wanting desperately to break through to someplace better.

The album boasts some exceptional songs, lyrically. “Sweet Thing” is a beautiful paean to a lover, “Cyprus Avenue” paints a portrait of Van’s Belfast in such striking terms and colors that you feel you are walking down the street with him, and “Madam George” is a character sketch that only really hints at the true identity of the titular character.

Overall, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is a beautiful, moving album, one which speaks quietly rather than screaming from the speakers. There are layers of sound and meaning hidden within the record, and for those willing to dig into it, the rewards are great.


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