You could make the argument that, as much as things have changed over the past four decades, in some ways we’re still seeing things through the prism of 1968. In music, especially, many of the still-popular forms and genres people work in were either established or exemplified in 1968, which makes it even more interesting that one of the best loved and lauded albums of the year is one that is almost entirely a one-off.
There is enough background information about the writing, construction, performance and so on of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks out there if you’re curious, but for our purposes it’s enough to note that even Morrison either couldn’t or wouldn’t follow in its vein. The startlingly accomplished and at times even avant-garde arrangements of Astral Weeks (the seemingly random harpsichord hits and verbal explosion of “Cypress Avenue,” the dense, cyclic arrangements of “Ballerina” and the title track), the impressionistic haze and harrowingly emotional tenor of the lyrics (on which Lester Bangs wrote movingly in an essay you should seek out if you haven’t), even the record’s privileging of emotional impact over songcraft — none of this was ground to which Morrison would really return (or at least return successfully) in the future.
Album: Astral Weeks
Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 1968-11-28
As great as Moondance is, it’s a pop record as opposed to a folk/soul/jazz odyssey. It has singles, whereas with the possible exception of “The Way Young Lovers Do” (which still works better in the context of the album) it wouldn’t make sense to package any of Astral Weeks separately.
And you don’t really hear Astral Weeks‘ influence directly in the music that’s happened since, unless you want to count people reaching for and failing to grasp Morrison’s ability to flip between ecstasy and devastation without seeming insincere, the music’s perfect balance between genres (never do the arrangements seem awkward or mongrelized), and particularly his stunning verbal/vocal performance. Anyone can scat, repeat words, skew their lyrics towards the poetic/mystical/opaque, but no-one has made it sound as natural or even elemental as Van the Man did.
This is most striking and obvious on the three epics Astral Weeks is built around, the title track, “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George,” but even on the more immediate likes of “The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Sweet Thing” Morrison’s vocals bear more resemblance to an invocation or a dream than to a pop song.
And yet, even as Astral Weeks refuses to conform to the sort of shapes and forms expected of it (and it’s an open but interesting question as to what extent this is deliberate or a product of Morrison’s youth and relative inexperience) it remains immediately, viscerally compelling. It’s probably not played at as many parties as Moondance is, but Morrison is enough of a craftsman that nobody seems to have trouble getting into what honestly could have been a fairly obtuse listen. The emotional impact of the songs on Astral Weeks, and the album’s overall power, are immediately accessible to the listener, even though you can easily spend months or years exploring how exactly Morrison and his band did it.
At one point during “Sweet Thing” Morrison sings “Just to dig it all and not to wonder, that’s just fine / And I’ll be satisfied not to read in between the lines,” and that’s the perfect description of what Astral Weeks can do to the listener (even if it turns out reading between the lines in this case ca be pretty interesting). It’s a fugue, a daydream, a harrowing journey, a fond remembrance. That most of its putative offspring can be reduced down to mawkish faux-soul singers trying to emote over limp folk-jazz backings is in a way a testament to its irreducible, ineffable greatness.
— Ian Mathers