Released more than forty years ago, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is the focus of this week’s column. This record came off the back of the massive popularity of Brown Eyed Girl, but signalled a more strained, diluted version of Morrison, who strayed into the celestial realm of folk and away from pop. Rumour has it that the musicians that worked on this album with Morrison did so without knowing what he was saying or what the lyrics meant. In a way, it seems that the man himself is not much clearer. Throughout the record, he sings with the spontaneity of a live jam session, letting the melody run away with him and the lyrics repeat themselves constantly. Through this, Morrison creates an atmosphere of utmost inclusion, where the listener feels as if they’re being let in on a dark secret; there seems to be little structure to how he plays and sings, but this gives the impression of a man singing straight from his soul and into your earphones.
The track lengths on Astral Weeks show this more than anything; the longest song Madame George is almost ten minutes long, and the shortest is still a respectable 3.18. Madame George is essentially a story set to music (more than your average song is); the instrumentation at the beginning is so subtle that it’s almost as if he’s right in front of you, describing this woman and the soldier she follows. It’s clear, however, that more thought has gone into it than Morrison just sitting down with a guitar and a narrative. The fiddle on the track weaves in and out of the flute and guitar, all of the instruments seeming to chase each other as the story continues. This makes the track all that more special, as does that fact that the music reflects what’s being sung, such as when Morrison sings about the soldier, and the drums become a military march.
For a first time listener, I think Morrison’s voice could take some getting used to. At points, it pushes the boundaries of in and out of tune, when every now and again he yells at a pitch that’s completely unexpected. With the risk of sounding like a broken record, this random wailing – at times, that’s really what it is – does sound like a man letting us know how he’s feeling. Namely, it sounds like he’s in a lot of pain, such as in Beside You. Here, the initially gentle music turns chaotic as Morrison’s voice gets louder and more desperate, almost screaming at the thought of being “beside you”. While I can respect this as a song conveying more than most of the poetry I’ve studied this term, it makes for a slightly uncomfortable listening experience.
However, just as he seems to revel in this awkward tension between upsetting and disturbing, Morrison is able to make a good old fashion pretty song, as he does with Sweet Thing. Here, the lyrics express love through the concrete “gardens all wet with rain” and the abstract promises to “never… grow so old again”. The music, in stark contrast to the song before, remains the sweet sound of guitar strums and light drums, and this makes it – somewhat predictably – one of my favourite tracks on the record. This is probably because out of the whole album, it’s the song that fits most comfortably into the classic structure of a song. Cyprus Avenue is just as sweet in its lyrics and melody, and yet the runaway melody and repetition of lyrics towards the end of the record transcends it. While you can hear a fiddle and strings, it’s not a straightforward folk song, as we’re led on this seemingly never ending path of a story that ends up looping round on itself.
These songs aren’t exactly accessible, but this is where the magic of this album lies. It really feels as if this isn’t a record for us, but for Morrison himself. In fact, if you forget the fact that it’s a produced and released album, you could easily imagine this music to be something you overhear from a mysterious drunkard with a guitar, busking in the early hours of the morning. His stories, while often being about “you”, seem completely introspective, which made me feel lucky as a listener, for being able to hear this album at all. Overall, I think that conceptually and musically, it’s one of the most interesting records that I’ve covered in this column. The tension between his bluesy voice and the Celtic influence creates this moment of music that is at once mysterious and jazzy (as in The Way That Young Lovers Do), to haunting and confusing (as in basically everything else). All in all, a very interesting album that it’s definitely worth losing yourself in at least once.