Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Astral Weeks’ by Belfast‘s finest son Van Morrison.
Writing about an album like ‘Astral Weeks’ is not an easy task. The facts of its creation are that it was recorded in New York in September and October of 1968 and it was released that November. It came a year or so after Van Morrison’s hit song Brown Eyed Girl proved the singer’s songwriting credentials and about eighteen months after the break-up of Northern R&B band Them. Morrison was twenty-three when the album was recorded.
Describing the music is quite another matter. Any number of adjectives, emotions and metaphors are used when talking about the album, but they only give an impression of what your emotional response might be, leaving the music itself out of the conversation completely. Impression is almost certainly the best word to begin describing ‘Astral Weeks’ as nothing about it is strictly defined; not the song structures, nor the themes in which the album’s two sides are divided (“In The Beginning” and “Afterwards”), and the feelings it evokes are more easily compared to the paintings of Monet and Degas than to even the music that directly influenced it.
The themes it addresses traverse the pastures of love and nostalgia but this is done through stream-of-consciousness imagery, so to break the album down to these two themes is too banal to give an accurate idea of what is achieved here. Lyrically the most interesting song is probably Madame George with its evocation of the carefree summers of childhood. The character of Madame George is elusive and each mention adds more understanding and more mystery to her, transforming her from a maternal figure to a romantic one, from an authoritative person to a corrupter of innocence, always adding layers of complexity but never veering from the truth.
Musically the album is in the realm of the simple, the spontaneous and the sensual. The loose rhythms of the songs are reminiscent of the arrangements of Nelson Riddle, particularly on Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’, where music and singing are in almost perfect emotional tandem, and like that album ‘Astral Weeks’ thrives on virtuoso singing. However Morrison takes this aesthetic and applies a ragtime improvisation, making it even more spontaneous and emotional than that great album. The basic chord structures of the songs give the musicians a very basic pattern that they can break away from easily without getting lost, and the experimentation advances as the album goes on. Beside You seems to have the remnants of a waltz timing hiding within it but the track’s two guitars stretch the length of the song like wild vines and you will drive yourself mad trying to hear that waltz.
Cyprus Avenue contains a basic blues structure from which the musicians use their ears and their instruments to simply play and communicate with one another. Reports of the recordings sessions claim that Morrison would not even speak to his musicians before the songs were recorded, choosing to isolate himself in a solitary booth while he played the guitar and sang and the other musicians followed his lead aurally rather than visually or intellectually. The result is tangible on the album but most prominent on Cyprus Avenue where crescendos spontaneously rise and fall, changing the aspect of the song repeatedly so that on a first listen you wouldn’t believe it’s the same three bars played over and over again for seven minutes.
One of the most remarkable things about discussion surrounding the album is how it is equated with feelings of emotional pain. It is unusual for an album to be so astute at cutting straight through to its emotional core, but ‘Astral Weeks’ does it effortlessly. The themes of nostalgia and love as tackled on the album are set up as ideal states, but without delving into the kitsch perfectionism of “the good old days”. The feelings of desire and hope expressed in Ballerina and the nostalgia of Madame George recall warm feelings of being alive, but unlike memories which arise in us spontaneously and allow us to recollect our feelings at a certain point in our past without being quite “present”, these songs – because they are “present” as we are experiencing them aurally and immediately through the senses – succeed in almost making us relive the feelings we experienced in the past.
This concept is similar to the idea of an “outer body experience”, as we are able to both experience and witness our own emotional history through Morrison’s evocations of his own past. Because ‘Astral Weeks’ allows us to both feel and interpret at the one time it has both the beauty of experiencing certain emotions and the inherent sadness of looking back on the past as an ideal time. The major chord-heavy compositions of the album belie this sadness, but rather than being inherent to the music on the recording it is something we as listeners bring to it. The feeling is familiar as the particularly beautiful moments on the album (eg. “and you’re high on your high flyin’ cloud”, “the love that loves…” etc.) arise and vanish beyond our grasp in an instant, recreating the impermanence of beautiful moments in our own lives and the feeling of sadness having lost them forever.
This sadness underlies the whole album but it finally breaks through on the closing track Slim Slow Slider, where the tone is notably muted in comparison to the rest of the album and finishes with “I know you’re dying/and I know you know it too/Every time I see you/I just don’t know what to do”. The line perfectly captures the album’s obsession with the impermanent as well as the poetic tendency to appreciate beauty in retrospect without being able to be pragmatic towards it. It’s an ultimately tragic note to end the album on, and the guitar-smacking that fades out to conclude the song feels partly therapeutic, as if these feelings of desire are not tied up nicely, the eight songs we’ve just heard have not managed to kill the desire that they have expressed. It’s a desperate attempt to claw at the walls before death.
But the fact that Morrison never attempted another album like this suggests that whatever desires he was attempting to express were in fact dealt with. He clearly never had the desire to go back and try again an album of such loose structures, following up in 1970 with a brilliant if considerably more conventional album in ‘Moondance’. For its bold experimentalism and ultimate musical genius ‘Astral Weeks’ remains not just the most singular album of Van Morrison’s career, but also one of the most unique albums in world music.
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Jeopardy’ the debut album by post-punk outfit The Sound.