27 August, 2007 by rhesus12
Van Morrison (1968, re-released 1990)
Too much blogging about albums and songs recently. Still, this is my all-time favourite so …
Below I’ve copied comments and commentaries from a couple of sources rather than write about it myself. This is because most are hard to beat, and because there’s something different about Astral Weeks that would take too long to work out, if I could. It’s just not a normal record. It’s strangely ramshackle, the bass seemingly out of time with Van’s singing. That would be because he recorded his parts seperately, reportedly unable to play with anyone else for long. Also, the songs had to cope with his estactic phrasing (see Lester Bangs on this, below), the work of a singer clearly somewhere else.
I’m not sure what mysticism is, but I know it exists in our daily lives if we do the work to see it. That’s what I get from this – the elevated ordinary, in its way like Thoreau’s Walden. Bear I mind I’m not some dippy hippy (Ravi Shankar is a hero of mine because he told the Californian karma tourists to leave his music alone.)
My best Astral Weeks memory is walking around the south Wairarapa coast to Lake Onoke, exhausted from a too-heavy pack and with heat stroke coming on. This probably put me in the right frame of mind to hear it properly (click the thumbnail on the right for a general idea).
Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece – i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far – no matter how I’d been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work. …
What this is about is a whole set of verbal tics – although many are bodily as well – which are there for reason enough to go a long way toward defining his style. They’re all over Astral Weeks: four rushed repeats of the phrases “you breathe in, you breath out” and “you turn around” in “Beside You”; in “Cyprus Avenue,” twelve “way up on”s, “baby” sung out thirteen times in a row sounding like someone running ecstatically downhill toward one’s love, and the heartbreaking way he stretches “one by one” in the third verse; most of all in “Madame George” where he sings the word “dry” and then “your eye” twenty times in a twirling melodic arc so beautiful it steals your own breath, and then this occurs: “And the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves.” …
Fact: Van Morrison was twenty-two – or twenty-three – years old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it. What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.
The All Music Guide says
[a]n emotional outpouring cast in delicate musical structures, Astral Weeks has a unique musical power. Unlike any record before or since, it nevertheless encompasses the passion and tenderness that have always mixed in the best postwar popular music, easily justifying the critics’ raves.