In 1968 Van Morrison released Astral Weeks to great critical acclaim. Ten years later Lester Bangs wrote a fervent appraisal of its enduring power. In his critique in Stranded, Bangs posits the music against the tumultuous socio-political landscape of the late ’60s”: “It did come out at a time when a lot of things that a lot of people cared about passionately were beginning to disintegrate, and when the self destructive undertow that had always accompanied the great sixties party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in its maw and was pulling straight down.”
Surfacing 40 years after that album’s birth is another incarnation of Astral Weeks: a live recital of the entire classic, with Morrison regaling an appreciative audience at the Hollywood Bowl. The timing is somewhat curious. Whether it is pure coincidence or conscious design, Morrison has summoned his masterpiece in a transient global environment dominated by economic insecurity. As the initial introduction (“Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you Astral Weeks“) makes way for the early notes of the title track and Morrison’s plangent voice intones the first verse, it becomes clear this is no blatant cash-grab. Morrison and his virtuoso band are clearly reaching for something far greater than a fat paycheck.
The songs on Astral Weeks, as a set of lyrics, can be entirely subjective. Lines like, “If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams / where immobile steel rims crack / and the ditch in the back roads stop / could you find me”, from the song “Astral Weeks”, transposed though Morrison’s wizened, oaken timbre in today’s atmosphere, could very well evoke visions of infrastructure on the verge of collapse.
One of the centerpieces of Astral Weeks, “Cyprus Avenue”, with its borderline-pedophilic subject matter, is yet another that echoes recent headlines. The fact that “Cyprus Avenue“ predated the Bill Henson scandal (last year’s big controversy that one of Australia’s best known artists photographed a bare breasted pubescent girl) means it could only be Henson that was inspired by “Cyprus”, and not vice versa. As insightful as ever, Bangs notes that there was nothing sensationalist about the topic “…I was wrong about the ‘pedophilia’ — It’s about a person, like all the best songs, all the best literature”. And now, all the best art. Contemporary relevance aside, one senses that there is a deeper subliminal plot within the mysteries of all of Morrison’s compositions. When the opening track moves from “We are going to heaven / in another time / in another place” to iterations of “I believe I’ve transcended” (which is not heard in the original Astral Weeks album), Morrison could very well be providing an insight into his mystical perspective.
Among his many vocal idiosyncrasies, much has been made of Morrison’s repetition of a phrase or verse. As Bangs puts it, “He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he’s waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along.” Here, the shamanistic chanting ritual is once again in full flight. “I believe I’ve transcended” is repeated until the words are subsumed by vocal emotion. The sharp intake of “breath-in you, breathe-out, breathe ‘an youbreatheout” on “Besides You” suffuses the air with tension. The extended “lovestolovethelovestolovetheloves…” circumnavigates an immeasurable empathy for the titular transvestite on “Madame George”.
Morrison doesn’t stop at that. He stammers through “my tongue gets tied / every every every time I try to speak” on “Cyprus Avenue” and unleashes an energetic scat on “The Way Young Lovers Do”. He changes the original sequence of songs, improving the flow by fitting the jazzy waltzes of “Sweet Thing” and “Young Lovers” together. He adds two songs from other albums, “Listen to the Lion — The Lion Speaks” and ”Common One”. These fit the tone and the mood as welcomingly as a pair of lost siblings rejoining the Astral Weeks family. The band of proficient jazz musicians backing him up turn in an astounding performance brimming with precision, subtle floridity and, when required, heart-rending beauty.
This is essentially Morrison pulling all stops in attempt to fulfill his never-ending quest for transcendence; in this instance, to transcend the average concert experience. Apart from the cover art that sees Morrison in a rather unbecoming pose (he looks more like a smarmy used-car salesman than a music legend), every aspect of this release remains vital. In their dark era, the children of the ’60s would have found solace in the poetic beauty of what is probably Van Morrison’s greatest work. Perhaps this burdened generation will also find some of the hope they are desperately seeking in this reconstruction of a classic record.