It’s a good song.
It’s a good song.
How is it I never listened to this album all the way through until after I’d graduated college? How is it I went 22 years having only heard the title song and maybe “And It Stoned Me?”
How was I that ignorant of one of the absolute best albums that has ever existed ever in the history of music?
In my defense, he wasn’t Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Queen, or Moxy Fruvous (the bands and musicians I was, well, obsessed with throughout high school and most of college). He was my brother’s favorite, and while I liked tunes like “Brown-Eyed Girl” well enough, Van just didn’t really pop up on my radar that much.
Then I spent the summer in Yellowstone National Park with said brother. We spent a lot of time listening to (and making our own) music. Van Morrison was in heavy rotation (along with plenty of Dylan, Neil Young, etc.). It was inescapable, and soon I was a fan.
Moondance is, simply put, the best album Van Morrison ever released. Sure, there are those who say Astral Weeks is the better, more-ambitious album, or that Tupelo Honey better represents the blend of country, R&B, Celtic soul, and whatever else Van wanted to throw into the mix. There might even be a couple of apologists for 1974’s Veedon Fleece (my wife’s uncle, for one). Those people are, in a word, wrong. To be any wronger, we’d have to develop a whole new wrongness scale with new terms for being completely, absolutely, fundamentally wrong, then bury the needle on it, because Moondance is the best damn album in Van Morrison’s extensive catalog.
What Moondance does, better than any other album, is put amazing song after amazing song down in front of the listener. It’s not a matter of genre-hopping for the sake of having a country song and a Celtic soul song and an R&B song and a jazz standard song on the album; instead of letting form dictate the song, the song dictates the form. This isn’t pastiche, it’s genuine affection for different styles of music that Van had absorbed in his youth and synthesized into something new and wonderful. Each song feels a little different, but of a whole: the lead-off, “And it Stoned Me,” is a beautiful ode to childhood (and moonshine), done in an almost country ballad style, while the title track is a swinging pop standard that wouldn’t sound out of place if sung by the likes of Sinatra (or, if you want to get more recent, Michael Buble). “Crazy Love” is just one of the most beautiful love songs ever. “Caravan” is a bouncy, jazzy, jubilant tune with a sing-along coda that I will join in with at the top of my lungs every time, and “Into the Mystic” is the best Celtic soul song Van’s ever done, period.
The second half of the record, while not the string of instant classics that is the first side, is still really damn impressive. “Come Running” has that great horn line that pops up in the chorus and a bridge that gets me smiling every time. You can almost hear Van himself grinning through “These Dreams of You,” with its clever lines like, “You slapped me on the face/I turned around the other cheek.” The only song that I don’t particularly care for is “Brand New Day,” which just feels too slow and drags a bit. It’s not a bad song, per se, but amidst nine other tracks of sheer brilliance, it kinda sticks out as less than stellar. Things pick back up with the harpsichord-driven “Everyone,” with its sprightly martial drumbeat and flute or fife or whatever instrument it is trilling in the background. Things come to a close with “Glad Tidings,” with its insistent bass line and horn stings, pointing the way to future tracks like the always-awesome “Wild Night” (off Tupelo Honey, natch).
From start to finish, Moondance is an accomplished, comfortable record that I always want to start over from the beginning whenever I reach the end. It doesn’t feel as mannered or as calculated as some of his later work, but what it lacks in formal stateliness it more than makes up for with sheer inventiveness and just damn-good songwriting and performance. It is, hands-down, my favorite Van Morrison album, and the highlight of a career that is, frankly, full of them.
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.