Matt Jones explains his continuing fascination with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks
When I say that ‘Astral Weeks’ changed my life, from an outside perspective the conclusion might be that such a statement inevitably carries a flavour of hyperbole about it. And yet, how else am I so succinctly to describe the effect that this album has had on me? An album for times when you’re feeling low, an album for times of jubilation. An album that provides forty-six minutes of peace in a stressful week. An album that provides a time for reflection. An album that allows you to become immersed in your own thoughts, or mercifully, to think about nothing at all.
‘Astral Weeks’ was Van Morrison’s second solo album, and it is a testament to the quality of this album that in such an illustrious and prolific career, it stands out as his masterpiece. The effect that this album has had on me, and so many others, is all the more remarkable when one considers that it was recorded in just three studio sessions in the autumn of 1968, the majority of the jazz musicians on the record had never played together before, and the complete lack of rehearsals meant that many of the instrumentals were completely improvised. This though, only adds to the sense of legend surrounding the album.
In ‘Astral Weeks’, Van Morrison is all at once master poet and musician. Lyrically the album is truly a work of art; Van’s originality, ‘conquered in a car-seat’, ‘call the autumn time a fool’ is wondrous. Musically it is a collage of sounds-jazz and blues, folksy guitar and classical instruments. The music accompaniment is at times majestic (‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ and ‘Madame George’ stand out in particular) and blends seamlessly with Van Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness narrative.
This narrative paints a vivid picture of Van Morrison’s childhood in East Belfast. As a native of the city myself, this is a factor which really brings the stories to life- place names such as Cyprus Avenue and Sandy Row are instantly recognizable. These places along with London’s Ladbroke Grove become part of Van’s poetry, and he makes them sound every bit as special as the more often eulogised places in Amercian songwriting, places like the New Jersey Turnpike or California coastline. Despite the strong sense of a mystical Celtic setting, the themes and issues that the songwriting explores are universal. Each song tells its own story, and each has a particular emotional focus: whether it’s sheer empathy and compassion, ‘Madame George’, rejoicefulness ‘Beside You’ or desire and hopelessness, ‘Cyprus Avenue.’ Every song is an epic, every story has the power to move.
There is also something intensely spiritual about ‘Astral Weeks.’ Van Morrison allows the listener to become immersed in his thought process and thus in his emotions. These emotions though, as emotions tend to be in real life, are not simple, but highly complex and often conflicting. Never before and never since have I heard so much joy and despair in the same place. He lays his feelings bare before the world with a beautiful candour. In doing so he at once becomes vulnerable, but with this vulnerability comes a kind of spiritual growth. The title track in cries,‘lay me down, to be born again’, and in a sense there is the feeling that Van is reaching inside himself for a kind of spiritual rebirth. In the same way, from the perspective of the listener, ‘Astral Weeks’ upon several listens can become spiritually enriching, and allow us some kind of insight into our own souls.
The vocals on ‘Astral Weeks’ thus convey incredible levels of raw emotion, and provide an insight into a tortured soul-but not a miserable soul. Van Morrison’s torture is the torture of the human condition. Perhaps this provides the answer as to why ‘Astral Weeks’ is so moving, so powerful. Its power derives from, and masterfully and artistically captures, the power of the human experience.