Vinyl Frontier: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

HERE is one of music’s most precocious calling cards, slapped down by George Ivan Morrison in 1968 when he was 23.

Morrison’s solo debut after his days with Them is mystical, folky, loosely jazzy, and hard to put in a box (apart from the one marked ‘Van having a wander’).

Astral Weeks has a sort of impenetrable strangeness and that is one reason the album has survived to entrance and baffle new generations of listeners.

It was recorded at a time when record companies were becoming wary of albums that cost a fortune and took months. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper was six months in the making at a then-astronomical cost of £40,000.

Warner Bros wanted a brisker return for their buck and Van laid down this enchanting, transcendent and occasionally patchy album in two days in New York’s Century Studios.

The musicians hired for the job were dependable jazz players: drummer Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet, bassist Richard Davis (ex-Miles Davis) and guitarist Jay Berliner, who had played with Charlie Mingus. The strings and horns were added later.

As for that strangeness, don’t go expecting much in the way of guidance from the man himself.

Van’s comments and thoughts about Astral Weeks have never cleared anything up, either intentionally or because he doesn’t know or doesn’t wish to explain (fair enough: nothing wrong with a spot of mysteriousness).

The title song opens the album and sets the misty scene with the words: “If I venture in the slipstream…” Astral Weeks is one of three great songs on the album that bears its name – “stream of consciousness things”, according to Van. The other two are Cyprus Avenue and Madame George.

Cyprus Avenue was a prosperous, tree-lined road in Belfast down which it is said the young Van used to wander deep in thought; or possibly kicking stones while frowning. It remains a deeply resonant song, a hymn to the past and to a sense of place.

Greatest of them all is Madame George, a brooding trance of a song, as much a mood as anything else. And, again, don’t to Van for clues. He once said the song “was about six or seven different people, who couldn’t find themselves in there if they tried”.

On another occasion he helpfully said the song was “like a Swiss cheese sandwich”; thanks for that, Van.

Listened to again now, through the crackle of badly kept vinyl, Astral Weeks remains a wonder and a conundrum. At times it’s a tricky listen: Morrison may have turned into a great singer, but his voice here can sound harsh and strident.

The Way Young Lovers Do is a cheerful blast that recalls his time with Them, while Ballerina and Slim Slow Rider veer towards being filler songs.

Some critics said this was Morrison’s Blonde On Blonde, but not everyone liked the album on its release. Nick Logan for NME dismissed songs that weren’t “particularly distinguished, apart from the title track, and suffer from being stuck in one groove throughout”.

Oh, I’ve been stuck in that one groove for years now, and still find it a rewarding place to sit and try to puzzle it all out.

This blog was written after a lifetime of listening and with the invaluable help of Patrick Humphries’ little CD-shaped book, The Complete Guide to the Music of Van Morrison, published in 1997 by Omnibus Press.


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