LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #14 - Albums that defy genre #2 - Astral Weeks - Van Morrison

I’m proud to admit that I’m Northern Irish. Not Irish, not British, but Northern Irish. Personally it’s not a matter of politics; it’s a cultural thing. Northern Irish people have an extremely unique sense of humour, way of life and culture that don’t really match up with those of our British and Irish counterparts most of the time. Also, for such a small country we have produced a great number of remarkable people: Seamus Heaney, C. S. Lewis, George Best, Alex Higgins, Rory McIlroy, Kenneth Branagh and Liam Neeson, to name a few [Stiff Little Fingers too, though you also gave stillbirth to Snow Patrol, so I think we can call it karmatically even. – Ed]. It’s worth being proud of. And in a year where Northern Irish golfers have brought the country to international prominence and respect, it seems appropriate to assert my love for my country. There mightn’t be a lot to do in it, but it’s a nice place to be. Anyway, the reason I say this is because the subject of today’s article, Van Morrison, is from our wee country, and despite the plethora of talent coming from it, I would quite honestly proclaim Van Morrison our finest export. And Astral Weeks, his first album for Warner Brothers, is his finest work.

Every good work reflects something on the part of its creator, and Astral Weeks is no exception. Morrison had grown up in Belfast but had been getting his kicks from American blues and R&B records for years. After forming an all-Ulster band called Them that had a distinctively rock & roll style, Morrison quit and headed Stateside, but not before he’d spearheaded the ultimate garage rock song Gloria. So it’s not surprise that Astral Weeks has a positively transatlantic sound, with leanings of Irish folk and chamber music combined with R&B, soul and a touch of jazz. But the album is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s an intensely personal work, with Morrison’s lyrics unfolding like pages of an old diary; fragmentary, not quite giving you the whole picture, but enough to get a sense of his entire emotional framework. At times we find him vulnerable and shy, such as in Cyprus Avenue: “My tongue gets tied/Every time I try to speak/And my insides shake /Just like a leaf on a tree.” At others, he appears confident and assuring, such as in Ballerina: “Spread your wings/Come fly a while/Straight into my arms/Little angel child” But mostly we find him reflective, nostalgic and consoling. Almost all of the songs are “love” songs in some sense of the word, but highly atypical ones. Sweet Thing, for example, is a forward looking journey, almost a promise of the priceless moments the singer and his love have yet to enjoy together. This song is awash with gorgeous natural imagery and themes, seeming to suggest their love blossoming or growing like a very force of nature. “We shall walk and talk in gardens all misty wet with rain/And I will never, never never grow so old again” and the beautiful “I will raise my hand up into the night time sky/And count the stars that’s shining in your eye” are some of the most poetic depictions of love ever committed to tape.
At only 23 when the album was made, Morrison naturally expresses a number of youthful traits on Astral Weeks, such as his intense longing or unrequited love, naivety and an optimism that had not yet been shaken by world-weariness or defeat. Yet in ways the musical maturity of Morrison far exceeded his years. Beside You is possibly the most difficult song on the album, with very oblique lyrics, no discernible rhyme scheme and a delivery almost akin to poetry. But it matters not that it breaks every convention of music at the time; Beside You has a strange power to transform us and take us away into the world of the singer like most of the album. The lyrics are fragmentary and possibly non-linear. It has been likened to the painting school of impressionism; seeking to evoke emotion through imagery and using that imagery to paint a bigger picture. I can’t think of a better way to describe them. Two of the central songs, Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, fit this description best. Both are sprawling, loose narratives reflecting on the past. The actual Cyrpus Avenue is a street in Belfast that Van knew as a child, and his lyrics take us to that time and place where he was youthful and curious. His lyrics describe a “mansion on a hill,” “the rumbling station,” “six white horses and a carriage,” “the avenue of trees” and many other things besides, and from this there emanates a longing for these riches of life, a feeling of yearning and wanting to be a part of something special. His descriptions of his lady with “rainbow ribbons in her hair” is similarly idealized, and we have to wonder; is it all fantasy? Is this a young Van lying in his room, dreaming of this idyll? Certainly the mystical qualities of both the music and lyrics leave the matter open to debate. And Madame George is a heartbreaking tale of leaving the past, of a young man bidding farewell to an old drag queen in whose company he used to play games. Ranging from sweet nostalgia to mournful agony, Morrison’s voice takes us through the range of emotions he’s feeling in an epic performance.

Musically, however, is where this album is at its most unique and genre-defying. Drawing on his Irish heritage and love of American music, Van’s vocal delivery owes much to the raw singing of the delta blues. His voice, startling at first, becomes as much of an instrument as the instruments themselves, with his frantic delivery, huge range of volume and pitches, odd inflections and his wordless chanting reminiscent of scat singing. But in every way does his lyrical delivery suit the music. When the lyrics describe a longing, he sounds longing; when they describe nostalgia, he sounds nostalgic. Never before have vocals been used so powerfully or movingly. And the music is among the most tragic, transcendent and powerful music I’ve ever heard. Van’s contribution to the sound was his folk and soul leanings, but three of the session musicians were renowned jazz instrumentalists who brought a hefty dose of improvisation and colour to the album. Furthermore, a string quartet was added to several of the tracks in post-production, giving it a classical edge. The result is an astonishing fusion of seemingly disparate styles that only adds to the album’s mystique and spiritual power. Flashes of acoustic guitar, jazz drumming, upright bass, vibraphone, harpsichord, flutes and strings join together to make a supremely organic, earthy atmosphere. Furthermore, this cohesion is made all the more remarkable by the fact that most of the music was simply improvised – these were mostly jazz musicians after all, it was how they worked. According to drummer Connie Kay; “…he said to play whatever I felt like playing. We more or less sat there and jammed.” Each musician was allowed to explore what they were feeling with no limit while trying to feel the mood of the song and contribute to the sound of that. The final product is something that is separate, but amazingly together. It simply must be heard to truly understand.
Astral Weeks has consistently been renowned as being one of the best albums of all time, but unlike many albums with such acclamation that seem to be there more because of their impact rather than the quality of the music, (Sgt. Pepper’s anyone?) Astral Weeks truly deserves this praise. It’s unique and offers you something different every time you hear it. We may have spawned Nobel Laureates and major sporting championship winners, but for me, Astral Weeks is the best thing that our little country has ever produced. Period.
Words - Adam

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