Astral Weeks Turns 50
The first song I ever heard from Astral Weeks was “Sweet Thing.” I was immediately hypnotized by the meandering melodies, delicate symphonic background, and dreamy lyrics. This is Van Morrison, I thought to myself in wonder. This is the raucous, raspy-voiced rager who screamed with lust for Gloria and sang “Brown Eyed Girl” in a drunken slur. This is amazing. So I listened to it about seven more times, wishing I could reach out and trace the rise and fall of the music.
And so began my love affair with Astral Weeks. There was a three week period of time when I listened solely to Astral Weeks and The Bands’ Music from Big Pink, because I saw a comment under a video for Astral Weeks that said, “I was 17 when this album was released. I listened to it and Music from Big Pink for an entire summer, and it changed my life.” I wanted to know what kind of life-changing power it had. To this day, I can’t say that it changed my life, but the appreciation it gave me for Van Morrison (and The Band, but that’s another story) and his inimitable lyricism, delivery, and storytelling can’t be fully expressed.
Astral Weeks turns 50 this year, but, like a select few records, remains ageless, for one reason: it’s an incredible record. From top to bottom, Van Morrison’s ingenuity, passion, and willingness to explore and express himself with knee-buckling vulnerability allowed him to create one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Recorded in three sessions at Century Sound Studios in New York City in September and October 1968 and released a month later, Astral Weeks was an unexpected and radical break from Morrison’s previous pop hits. Jazz-influenced and blending elements of blues, folk, and Celtic R&B, the record received very little critical or commercial success. In fact, according to Ryan H. Walsh, author of Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Astral Weeks wasn’t even mentioned in Rolling Stone until the publication released its roundup of the best music of 1968. Even then, though Astral Weeks stood apart; lyrically, thematically, linguistically, it was a record from a time that didn’t exist then and perhaps never will. “It refused to speak the language of the time,” critic Greil Marcus said of the record in his lyrical book on Morrison, When That Rough God Goes Riding, “and in the way that time has been rewritten into a single rotting cliche of VIETNAM STUDENT RIOTS LBJ LSD SEXUAL REVOLUTION BLACK POWER NIXON.”
This blatant refusal to fall in line, however, is what gives the record its universal appeal. “It made me trust in beauty,” Bruce Springsteen once said of the record. “It gave me a sense of the divine.” In the fifty years that followed the release of Astral Weeks, it’s been a beacon in a dark, cold abyss, where pop hits are shelled out and vapid lyrics are pumped into the minds of the casual listener. It’s been a shelter for those in need of comfort in a cruel world. It’s unified the outcast, the outsider, the lonely, the dreamers and the thinkers, the creators and the believers who hold onto the last thread of hope that this life and this world can be as divinely and miraculously worth living — and loving — as Astral Weeks portrays it. It’s an escape from mundanity and the oftentimes dreary existence of mankind. In a word, it’s art, doing exactly what art is meant to do.
From the first notes of the epic seven-minute title track to the last echo of “Slim Slow Rider,” Astral Weeks offers an intimate look into the darkest, most intimate recesses of Morrison’s soul. More poetry than pop lyrically, percussively minimal, and featuring a jazz quintet to back Morrison’s raw vocals. The contradictions permeating the record — the delicate, ethereal music featuring the throaty, at times loosely controlled and previously anarchic vocals of the former Them’s frontman, the fairytale-esque lyricism against the ephemeral sonic landscape, the stutters and stops as Morrison seems to choke on the passion or pain in the lyrics — are unlike any other. Rather than presenting himself as big, bad Van the Man (or the half-homicidal leprechaun under the bridge, as a music critic once called him) in a time where bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were defining masculinity and revolt was the word on everyone’s tongue, we see the bard, the poet, the romantic mysticism born in the misty hills of Northern Ireland.
Astral Weeks treads lightly. It will never hit with the bombastic power of Electric Ladyland, or psychedelic thrill ride that is the White Album, but it doesn’t have to. It’s an escape to a world of love and rebirth, standing in direct contradiction to the wild, raucous revolution of the 60s. Fifty years later, its impact and importance are in no way lessened. If anything, it’s even more necessary to those living on the fringes of a world that feels totally foreign.
If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack and the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me? Would you kiss-a my eyes
Lay me down in silence easy to be born again