Words: Eamon Stewart
There’s nothing like Astral Weeks.
Seriously. Nothing like it at all. Even going beyond the unusual amalgamation of folk and classical with the occasional smatterings of country, jazz, and soul that comprise the album, there is a backstory to this mysterious record that doesn’t have any true counterparts anywhere else. Prior to Astral Weeks’ recording, Van Morrison was a budding pop star, serving as the leader of the short-lived but internationally successful Them and scoring a hit as a solo artist with “Brown-Eyed Girl.” He was a twenty-two year old, left-of-center heartthrob already a credible star in the context of a band and as an individual.
And then he decided to do something very admirable in the artistic sense and inadvisable in the commercial one. He defied his label’s desire for him to write more three minute pop songs, was accused of catalyzing the head of said label’s subsequent heart attack and death, wrote a joke album consisting of thirty-six gibberish songs to satisfy a contractual obligation to the record label (over which he was threatened with legal action), and then proceeded to disappear into the studio for three days with a group of jazz musicians thrown together at the last minute with no sheet music to accompany them.
And what resulted was something unique, or maybe it was uniquely perfect. What matters is the singular nature of Astral Weeks: a record that could have been made at any point during the last sixty years and still sound totally out of step with the music of its time, and totally beautiful because of it. It was released during the kickoff of the psychedelic era, when the main criteria for artistic talent and innovation were doing weird things to guitars, using recording tricks, and trying to shove as many unsubtle drug references into every song as you could. The album tanked financially, but it would have tanked whenever it came out. At no point would the rock masses have been distracted from their Manly Man ‘70s Hard Rock, dance-tinged New Wave, or even modern folk revival to want to listen to an album like this in large quantities.
Not that Astral Weeks was doomed to obscurity. It would eventually hit gold status in just its 33rd year (better late than never). A better reference point to the status that Astral Weeks has achieved in the forty some-odd years since its rather messy birth is its rank as 19th on Rolling Stone’s overwrought and otherwise wildly predictable list of the 500 greatest albums ever. There it is, way up there with the musical heavyweights of western canon, the Sgt. Pepper’s and the Exile on Main St.’s and the roughly two dozen Bob Dylan albums in the list’s top 50. Further acknowledgements of Astral Weeks’ longevity were Morrison’s two performances of the album in its entirety three and a half years ago. Morrison had to wait forty years to play the songs in the context he always wanted – front to back, with a full backing band. These were the songs that almost killed his career before he even recorded them, and probably would have done so afterwards had he not followed it up with his second greatest album, Moondance. Van certainly thought they were worth the risk.
So in celebration of the long-awaited but well-deserved accolades Astral Weeks has finally received, we at IF will be taking our metaphorical bats to Van Morrison’s magnum opus and give it the Tampering with the Classics treatment. Allegedly (very allegedly), there’s a concept album of sorts going on here. The songs in their entirety contain some kind of logic to them. Given the typically cryptic nature of the lyrics and Van’s refusal to explain himself, we’re not going to worry too much about messing with whatever linear narrative the album contains. Besides, what makes Astral Weeks so personal are the little snippets of songs, the one or two lines you hear that remind you of a certain memory, of a certain place. It’s the collection of tiny intimate lyrical moments that add up that give Astral Weeks its sense of grandiosity, not the fact that all the songs have fit the same storyline that the author has relentlessly beaten into your head. So, here then, is Astral Weeks, in all of its tampered glory.
1. “Cyprus Avenue”
Start things easy. The harpsichord is a gentle touch not seen anywhere else on the album, and one of the less vocally spastic performances makes for a fairly inviting tune. An added bonus: the song is based on something tangible (the Belfast street Morrison knew from his youth), giving the listener a realist base before taking the plunge into the vague impressionism that dominates things otherwise.
The other, kind-of-straightforward song comes next. The simple progression (and uncomplicated subject matter) is adorned by Morrison’s temperamental singing. The volatile (lest we forget, beautiful) vocals set the stage for the weird and grandiose that’s coming.
3. “Astral Weeks”
Shit gets epic on the string-laden titular track. Things build over the course of seven minutes, the instruments gets more aggressive, lyrics and vocals gets more dramatic, and then there’s the crescendo with the descending strings and Morrison telling someone (probably you) that you and him are going to be reborn in heaven. Alright then, if he says so.
4. “Beside You”
The most impressionistic, least coherent song comes right in the middle of the album. Anyone who doubts the fact that sheet music wasn’t used during the recording sessions has to concede that it wasn’t present for this song. The middle finger given here to music theory shouldn’t work, but it does anyway. We’ll peak here with weird stuff before we start moving back into the realm of traditionally logical compositions.
5. “Slim Slow Slider”
Lyrically, the record’s most overtly depressing; musically, the sparsest in this collection of tunes. It’s also by far the album’s shortest song, but a necessary detour into the morbid and barren.
6. “Sweet Thing”
Follow up the saddest sounding song with the happiest. The spiraling hook line (yes, Van bothered to write a song with one of those), the pronounced drumming, the singing that sounds full of life. It’s the album’s least introspective song, full of optimism and forward-looking. Makes sense to stick a song with those qualities towards the end.
7. “Madame George”
I like the idea of ending an album with the dramatic, drawn-out track and if there were ever a song anywhere that fit the bill, this is the one. “Madame George” is the colossal effort, which towers over everything else just by virtue of its scope. The song might be about a drag queen; it might be about upwards of a dozen different people. Who cares? This is the masterpiece within the masterpiece, and it finished perfectly by sidestepping the unnecessarily bloated finale by simply fading out as gently as it came in. And yes, it really sounds a lot like it’s about a drag queen.
Didn’t Make the Cut:
“The Way Young Lovers Do”
It’s not that I hate this song or anything. It’s not a bad song. It’s just way out of its element and has no business on this album. It doesn’t really have any business being sung by Van Morrison, it sounds more like an okay Wayne Newton song. No point in trying to make it fit. Leave it on the editing room floor.
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