March 3, 2015
What an odd album to find all the way up here in the top twenty. Not to say that it doesn’t deserve to be here–I’ll remain agnostic on that point. Just that it’s such a weird and singular musical statement–a soulfully poetic, psychedelic folk-jazz odyssey of truly sui generis stature that it seems a little unexpected to find it sandwiched between such solid, broadly appealing hit albums like Thriller and Born to Run. While a lot of the stuff Van Morrison was putting out immediately before and after this album–“Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance”–has a kind of easy, near-universal appeal, it’s difficult to imagine the more challenging music on this album resonating with more than a slight and particular segment of the record buying populace.
But perhaps what it lacks in breadth of appeal in makes up for in depth. It’s an album that seems to inspire intense devotion in its fans–one that gets spoken of in reverent terms that imply that listening to it is as much a spiritual experience as an aesthetic one. People who love this album really really love it. Alas, I cannot quite count myself among them. I think it’s a great album, and certainly among the more distinctive, original albums on this list. But the circumstances of my relationship to it–too little too late–are such that I never connected to it on the deep, spiritual level that characterizes many people’s relationship to the album.
For some variety of reasons (chief among them his wardrobe choices in The Last Waltz), I didn’t really become a fan of Van Morrison until well into adulthood. And in general, that’s worked out fine–he’s a good, adult sort of taste, and it’s nice to have a handful of artists of his stature left to explore anew once the blush of adolescent enthusiasm has faded. But in the case of this one particular record, I feel that a longer standing acquaintance might have bonded me to it more conclusively, and also that its particular, dreamlike quality might have fit better into the trappings of my more youthful proclivities. By the time I came to this album, I was no longer in a sufficiently indolent stage of life to absorb it in quite the ideal spirit.
As if to compensate for that, I was half asleep for much of this listening. And while that may have undercut my critical acumen slightly, it still felt like the right context. So much of the album’s power seems to derive from some liminal state, not quite moored by the conventions of phenomenal reality, that dozing in that hazy place right on the verge of sleep proved to be an ideal way to hear this album.
The album’s uniquely hypnagogic quality is achieved both by the kind of vague, impressionistic character of Morrison’s lyrics, and by the uniquely loose circumstances of the way the music came together. As I understand it, Morrison had his producer assemble a group of jazz players, led by bassist Richard Davis, to play on these sessions, and the group was not given much of anything to go on in terms of song structure. They simply listened and followed Morrison’s lead, isolated in his vocal booth with a guitar, and came up with the gently groovy, perfectly imperfect arrangements on the spot. Anchored by Davis’s confident, lyrical bass lines, the group falls into a sweet spot of collective improvisation that, to my ear, is at least as great an achievement as is Morrison’s role as the album’s central figure. It reminds me a bit of Kind of Blue, not only because it’s mellow and jazzy, but because it shares something of that miraculous quality of everything coming together just so–with minimal structure–in a way that it’s hard to imagine being easily replicated. But Morrison is arguably even more of an asshole than was Miles Davis, and apparently never even came out to say hi to the musicians who helped him create such an unlikely masterpiece.
This narrative of the album’s creation is well enough known that it’s what I remembered going in, having forgotten that the sound is fleshed out by orchestral overdubs. And while that sounds like an unfortunate overreach, a writing over of spontaneous perfection, the additions are mostly fairly subtle and effective. The sectional horn parts are mostly warm and low, almost subliminal, and nicely supportive of the music. Even the strings aren’t so bad, and on “Sweet Thing,” they pick up an insistent musical figure from Richard Davis’s bass line in a way that gives the song a lot of its character. It would be cool to be able to hear a stripped down version of the original sessions without the strings and horns, but in the main, I have to admit that they mostly work.
The unusual instrumental constitution of the album is a big part of what makes it as odd and adventurous of an album as it is, and is of particular interest to me. But of course, it is ultimately Van’s album, and it is his songwriting and especially his singing that are really the centerpieces of the album. I think the nature of what he’s doing is such that it neither yields to nor is apt to be illuminated by careful analysis. As poetry, I don’t know how much of what he’s doing really holds up, but it’s peculiarly mystical, imagistic quality casts a spell all the same. The words are perhaps best experienced as a torrent of images and feelings, a kind of incantation whose precise meaning is of less significance than the effect it has on a receptive listener. Really, the only lyrical part that really stood out to me, at least in this listening, is in “Cyprus Avenue,” when with slow and stately sense of purpose, he lifts the lines “my tongue gets tied when I try to speak, my insides shake like a leaf on a tree” straight out of “All Shook Up,” as though he were a troubadour snatching a commonplace line out of the collective unconscious, instead of just a guy plagiarizing an Elvis tune.
More than the content of the words, then, it is perhaps the way he sings them that gives this album its uniquely affecting quality. There’s a freeform kind of fearlessness to his vocal approach here–probably the furthest he’s ever extended himself out over the creative abyss. One thinks of Van Morrison primarily as a sort of white soul singer, but here, jazz is really the most relevant idiom. On paper, that doesn’t sound all that promising. I mean, who among us, except for jazz singers, actually loves heavily improvisatory modern jazz singing? Even abstracted from its scoodley-bop-bop scat-intensive caricature, it’s right up there with mime and prep school a cappella among the least loved forms of popular art.
But whatever Van is doing here, it really, really works. His almost schizoid vocal noodling is undergirded by a degree of emotional openness and commitment to what he’s doing that makes it deeply compelling. It’s not just soulful, it’s spooky, like he’s a channel for some form of communication not widely known on our plane of existence. More than the abstruse words he’s singing, I think it’s this quality that gives the album its peculiar aura of spiritual intensity. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few moments that fall flat. He gets a bit too Floyd the Barber/child of wonder sounding at the end of the title track (another time!….another place!…), and leans a little too hard and too long on repeating “you breath in, you breath out, you breath in you breath out…” in “Beside You.” But for what an open ended, loosely constructed performance he’s putting on, it’s amazing how few of those misfires there are. Listening this time, I was also struck by how great his guitar playing is. One doesn’t generally think of Van as a guitarist, and it’s not that he’s doing anything showy, but he’s expressing incredibly idiosyncratic musical ideas right along with his singing in a way that almost disappears, but which gives the entire band (and eventually, the orchestra) something to follow.
The drowsy state I listened in corresponded more or less to the first half of the album, which worked out well, since that side strikes me as the most consistent and perfect realization of the album’s promise. Even with the small moments that grate, I think it qualifies within its own parameters as an almost perfect side of music: a suite of uncommon depth and exhilarating originality. Of the songs that comprise it, “Sweet Thing” might be my favorite. Even if its not the most adventurous track, it is the most buoyant feeling, the most likely to provoke a pleasant, daydreamy sensation in me, even as (or perhaps because) it goes light on all the cosmic talk and just delivers a disarmingly sweet picture of youthful, soul deep infatuation to the tune of a droning, eastern spiritual feeling in the constancy of the orchestral part.
Side two feels a bit less perfect to me. It kicks off with the album’s weakest track, the annoyingly upbeat “Young Lovers.” It’s possible that it’s not an intrinsically horrible song, but it fits so poorly with the tenor of the rest of the album that it feels almost like a violation of some kind–an intrusion of Vegas-y showbiz smarm into the surrounding warm, folk-jazz miasma. Like the song “Moondance” it is swingin’ in the worst sense of the term, but even more aggressively so.
“Madame George” is the clear centerpiece of the second side, and while it is very good, it also feels slightly out of place. Where the quiet thrill of much of the album resides in its well realized spontaneity, “Madame George” feels like a jewel that has been comparatively over polished. The words and the way they’re sung seem less torrential, more rehearsed, and the heavy orchestration adds to the somewhat inert stolidity of the song.
The looser, come what may attitude returns for “Ballerina,” but it somehow fails to captivate me in the manner of the songs on side one. It lingers a bit long at the end, doing too much with too little. In the cavalcade of increasingly eccentric ways he repeats lines about dancing “just like a ballerina” I was almost reminded of Dana Carvey’s “Choppin’ Broccoli” bit–the way some fairly quotidian phrase is put through a ringer of vocal gyrations implying a profundity that is not necessarily there.
But the bulk of these inconsistencies are quickly forgotten as the album’s final track, “Slim Slow Slider” plays. It’s one of the shorter tunes on the album, but it does just about everything this album does well in a more concise package, making it both an ideal closer to the album, and a nice preview of the direction he would take on Moondance.
Both Moondance and this album, the two Van Morrison albums to make the list, are great ones, clearly deserving of being here. And yet it does seem a shame that they should be the only two. I would rather they be ranked a bit lower, and that he landed another album or two on the list. Pretty much any of his early 70s albums, like His Band and Street Choir or St. Dominick’s Preview could be easily justified for inclusion. I’m less familiar with it, but his live album of this era, Too Late to Stop Now is also tremendously well regarded–one that frequently gets nominated as being among the best live albums of all time. Or, a bit more off the beaten track, but my personal favorite, is Veedon Fleece, which resurrects some of the ineffable woozy charm of this album, but on more adult terms. In other words, great as it is, Astral Weeks has never quite counted among my very favorite of his albums. And yet because my fondness for his music is less than a decade old, the years that this project has kept me away from it are not insignificant, and it seems entirely likely that I will continue to develop a deepening love for this album as the years go by. I have my doubts that I will ever feel the fierce, nameless devotion that so many fans of this album seem to have, but it certainly feels like an album I will be enjoying for the rest of my life.
Source: LP – Rhino Records reissue. It’s hard to find an old copy of this one that isn’t beat to hell.