On one evening last year, Van Morrison finally got around to revisiting the album that many consider his masterpiece, “Astral Weeks.”
This week, a recording of that performance - “Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl” (Listen to the Lion/EMI) - was released. It presents a singer who sounds more engaged, more passionate than he has been about anything in years.
Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl
(Listen to the Lion; US: 24 Feb 2009; UK: 9 Feb 2009)
No work in Morrison’s canon - or in the rock lexicon, for that matter - sounds quite like “Astral Weeks.” Forty-one years after its release it still occupies its own world. It was never meant to be a rock album. Nor is it quite jazz either, even though a bunch of accomplished jazz musicians play on it. It’s not readily identifiable as the blues and R&B that Morrison revered as a youth. It’s steeped in the spirit of Irish poetry, but more in how it is sung rather than in how the words scan or what they mean.
The album produced no radio hits to rival Morrison’s best known songs, such as “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Domino,” “Wild Night” and “Moondance.” And it has been outsold by several Morrison albums. But it has never gone out of print, and it continues to hold an almost sanctified place in the history of popular music. It consistently appears on lists extolling the top albums of all time, and it has been dissected and praised by discerning music listeners for decades.
More significantly, it is an album that Morrison himself has never topped.
The original studio album arrived at a crucial time in Morrison’s transformation from the R&B shouter who fronted the Irish garage-rock band Them to the solo artist who chased his muse “into the mystic” and defined Celtic soul. Morrison had established his solo career in 1967 with “Brown Eyed Girl,” but he couldn’t have been more discouraged. He had a vision for how he wanted his music recorded, and to his ears, producer Bert Berns had sabotaged it with pop sugarcoating.
Soon after, the Irish singer was banging around Boston, testing new songs in coffeehouses with an acoustic trio. He was moving toward a more meditative sound outside the boundaries of rock, R&B and blues, though it was informed by all of those genres.
Most producers he auditioned for didn’t get it, but one did: Lewis Merenstein, a New York studio veteran whose credits would include the Mamas and Papas, Curtis Mayfield, John Cale, Miriam Makeba and Gladys Knight.
In Morrison’s idiosyncratic voice, Merenstein heard echoes of jazz vocalese, the style of vocal improvisation briefly popular in the early ‘50s. He hired jazz musicians for a recording session in New York, naming the bassist Richard Davis as session leader.
Davis in turn recruited Jay Berliner, a veteran of Charles Mingus’ bands, to play guitar, and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Connie Kay to play drums. The session also would include strings, horns, keyboards and flute.
Morrison’s non-linear songs lent themselves to a more open-ended interpretation. In these songs, his native Belfast figures prominently, but more as a state of mind than a geographical location. In these songs, Belfast becomes a place where time ceases to matter and childhood memories, adolescent passions and adult anxieties merge in a free zone of pure feeling. Cypress Avenue, the Belfast street where the rich folks lived, would become a lyrical metaphor for all that was out of reach for young Van.
Morrison was only 23 years old when the album was completed, but the songs on “Astral Weeks” showed the perspective of a much older man.
The album opens with the wondrous invitation of the title song to “be born again,” in a place “between the viaducts of your dreams.” The extraordinary sound of Richard Davis’ upright bass functions as a second voice, a foil for Morrison’s mercurial musings. The song unfolds and then gently recedes over seven minutes, with strings trembling like leaves in a sun-kissed breeze, and Morrison’s voice drifting away to a whisper.
He is a “stranger in this world,” and his true home is “in another time, in another place.”
The album tells the story of that search for home by focusing on commonplace details. Morrison repeats phrases and words until they become incantations.
Freed from the confines of pop structure and chord changes, he bends and twists lyrics in search of every possible nuance until he liberates them from literal meaning. “You breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out,” he chants on “Beside You.”
“Then you’re high, on your highflying cloud.”
Morrison doesn’t belong to the world he describes because he feels too much; implied is the notion that life is only worth living in these emotional extremes, from the reverie of “The Way That Young Lovers Do” to the torment of “Cypress Avenue.” The images conjured in these whirls of madness and ecstasy are all the more powerful because they’re uncensored. His hometown street of elusive dreams becomes the setting for a tale of illicit obsession. Morrison pines for a 14-year-old girl in “Cypress Avenue,” and over stately harpsichord, his self-denial turns into physical pain.
Yet there is still a reward in feeling so deeply about anything. What is most unbearable is the impermanence of it all. The specter of loneliness haunts Morrison throughout “Astral Weeks,” and as the album winds down it overwhelms him. “Madame George” describes the life of an aging, kind-hearted drag queen who throws parties for “the little boys comin’ round,” only to be abandoned by them again when the music fades, the booze runs out and the dancing stops. Amid these decadent liaisons, Morrison sees only the sadness of another human being, and he is moved to tears even as he makes his exit. The music is more of a tone poem than a song, a gentle weave of melancholy violin, flute and guitar with Davis wielding his bass like a beacon in the gloaming.
The light is extinguished for good on the closing “Slim Slow Slider.” Death closes in and Davis’ unflappable bass suddenly turns agitated as Morrison mutters the album’s epitaph. And then it’s done, an abrupt “Sopranos”- like shift to inky black silence.
When Morrison performed “Astral Weeks” at the Hollywood Bowl last year, he tinkered with the sequencing so that “Slim Slow Rider” arrived in the middle of the set, rather than the end. And he reshaped many of the songs, adding new codas, playing with vocal phrasing and expanding the orchestration. It is a different work but no less emotionally devastating. Morrison’s invocation to “get on the train” in “Madame George” evokes Curtis Mayfield’s civil-rights anthem “People Get Ready.” Like the soul classic, “Madame George” becomes a hymn to transcendence, an invitation to the better world Morrison describes in the title song - one that may exist only in our imagination.