Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968)
Glenn: I was lucky enough to meet magisterial bassist Richard Davis during college. When I asked Davis about Astral Weeks, to which he contributed genre-busting bass lines, Davis smiled down and said, “Oh, yes. Of course. Well, you know, Van was a mama’s boy.” And smirked. I’m not quite sure what Davis meant, but his pat response means he wanted to shed some humanizing light on Astral Weeks, as it is so revered. Davis is on record saying that Morrison didn’t know what he wanted from the musicians — or is it that Morrison couldn’t say what he wanted? Certainly the questioning delicacy of Davis’s bass, Connie Kay’s drums, and Jay Berliner’s guitar is what makes the record so unique. It sounds like a balancing act, as if no one is sure where these songs will go — except, that is, for Morrison. His singing is assured and forceful even as it is exploratory. And yet these adjectives don’t seem to quite do it. So: what is it about Astral Weeks?
Phil: My friend Jeff is usually about three years ahead of me when it comes to listening to music that was recorded more than ten years ago. The pattern usually went that he would compulsively listen to an album or a band for a week or two and tell me about how great it was or how great they were. He told me about Neu!, he told me about Television, he told me about the Ramones, and he told me about Astral Weeks. I listened to it and liked it, but pretty much forgot about it until I revisited the Jeff Buckley Live at Sin-e box set. His quavering ten-minute rendition of “Sweet Thing” made me get all glassy-eyed, and I had to come back to the album. And then I listened to it obsessively. For weeks. Last fall, I heard Rhino was repressing Astral Weeks on LP and I went to the record store and said, “Get me this record. Get me this record now.” And they caviled and mumbled and then four months later, I got a phone call saying “your record’s here.” So I ran down and picked it up and laid down on my bed and turned up the stereo and listened to this record over and over and over. It’s like I was a seventeen-year-old in 1968. Transported. Captivated by a muse.
See, Morrison is telling a story and he doesn’t quite know how it goes. He shares details, gives you glimpses of Cadillacs and ditches and shoes and dresses and children, all significant in their own uncertain way. But his way of exploring this story is intensely compelling. It’s his story, somehow, even though you have no real clear picture of the end or the beginning, or who the characters are. But this is one of the strongest points of the record: like every good storyteller, he gives you enough specifics to frame his narrative but leaves out enough to let you enter into it yourself. It then becomes your story, and you know who you’re talking to when you ask, “Could you find me?”
As far as the instrumentation goes, the horn parts on “The Way Young Lovers Do” are as much a part of the chorus as the horns on Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” The bass, especially on the title track, is indeed genre-busting. Nothing like it, ever. But for me, it’s the overdubbed string quartet that’s the most transcendent. It absolutely transports me, changes my eyes, opens up my heart. I compare all other string sections to the emotional heft of this one.
Ultimately, you can only talk about this record so much. And, God help me, it does sound like Van Morrison is singing through a mouthful of socks.
Jordy: Honestly, I don’t know what it is about Astral Weeks. But for me, it has been the most consistently thrilling and empathetic album in my collection. No other record I’ve heard matches its vision of something at once deeply melancholy and achingly beautiful.
Van Morrison was just 23 when he recorded Astral Weeks but, as Lester Bangs writes, “there are lifetimes behind it.” The songs are populated with half-formed but very affecting characters from Morrison’s memories. And like Phil pointed out, the music here somehow becomes your own. It addresses your pains and pleasures. It feels like something you could have dreamed up.
The album is a sigh — a deep breath that relaxes yet makes you aware of your own weariness. I used to skip over “The Way Young Lovers Do” because I thought it was just too brash for an album of such sepia-toned yearning. But now I see it as the reinvigorating first breath of Side B that slopes down into what I consider the record’s centerpiece: “Madame George.” Morrison has always been credited for singing beyond his race and this is why. Listen at 2:59: “Then from outside the frosty window raps.” And again at 4:29: “And as you leave, the room is filled with music, laughing, music.” Wow.
If you own this album but haven’t listened to it in a while, I encourage you to dust it off. It will work especially well during this Fall season when we pass through the darker, quieter months.
Adam: The first thing I think of when I think about Astral Weeks is the line in the title track “Could you find me?/Would you kiss-a my eyes?” and the second thing I think about is the harpsichord in “Cyprus Avenue.” Seriously, who puts a harpsichord is what is ostensibly a rock record? (In addition to the lovely harpsichord, I am also quite partial to the drumming throughout the album, and, like Phil, I love the horns on “The Way That Young Lovers Do.”) It is interesting that Van chose to put an instrument most popular in the baroque era on his album in 1968, at the height of the psychedelic era. I think the choice of the harpsichord says something about the kind of album Van wanted to make. He didn’t want to make a conventional rock album. He didn’t want to make an album that was easy to understand. He wanted to make an album that was a comfort to people who, to quote the title track, “ain’t nothin’ but a stranger in this world.” The record is meant to appeal to people who feel as though they are living, breathing anachronisms. This sense of timelessness is communicated through the instrumentation as well as through Van’s wailing, otherworldly vocals that would be right at home in an early 20th-Century blues record.
In short, Astral Weeks is not an album that you listen to. If you do nothing but listen to this album, you won’t get it and you will probably be bored. To really understand this album, it is necessary to form a relationship with it. Don’t know what Van is saying? Look up the lyrics. Listening to it in the background of some other activity? Stop what you’re doing, turn off the lights and let the music consume you. Read Lester Bangs’ review and listen to nothing else for a week. Then maybe you will begin to start to comprehend Astral Weeks.
Phil: The reason I’m lobbying for “Slim Slow Slider” is that it acts as a brilliant coda to the album, a reluctant goodbye, a remembrance and a farewell kiss to a memory. I think it sums up the emotional weight of the record, really heartbroken and resigned after this whole sorry, beautiful affair. It’s the feeling of the whole record, not all of the tracks, but the weight of the whole record set in miniature that makes me pick this song.
Glenn: I concur with you on “Slim Slow Slider,” Phil. I especially like the rattling bass strings at the very end, after what turns out to be a pretty drastic edit — cutting out around four minutes of music. Read this awesomely extensive interview with Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein for more insight into the creation of this record.
4 Essential Tracks:
“Slim Slow Slider”