Van Morrison-Astral Weeks (1968, Warner Bros)
I first became familiar with Van Morrison when I heard him feature on an album my parents used to play when I was a kid—1988’s Irish Heartbeat, a collaboration with Irish folk group the Chieftains. And I hated him. In fact, I distinctly remember telling my mom that Morrison ruined all of the songs on that album, which I loved otherwise. Little Me found his bluesy caterwaul out of place alongside Kevin Conneff’s chipper Irish tenor. Fast forward to freshman year of college, and Van Morrison found his way on to my freshman finals playlist in the form of the song “Caravan,” off 1970’s Moondance. This time around, I liked him a little more—and then a lot more—as I started listening to his catalogue in more depth. I discovered Astral Weeks during my sophomore year of college, when I happened upon a review by the legendary music critic Lester Bangs that basically called it the best album of all time. I remember sitting on a ratty couch in a frat house with my laptop and some Bose headphones and just getting lost in the music (disturbed only by Spotify commercials because my broke ass wasn’t paying for Premium) as people stomped around, drank Natty lights, and yelled at the Maury Povich show in the background. I bought the album that summer at the closed-soon-after FYE store in Philadelphia and it’s been a favorite ever since.
It’s interesting how often and how unexpectedly human memory gets blended up with the physical senses (with smell apparently being the most potent memory trigger.) The instant the meandering acoustic guitar line and gentle maracas of Astral Weeks’ titular opener hit my ears, I’m transported back to the rolling hills of St. John’s in the Vale, a particularly verdant stretch of valley located in northern England’s Lake District. I studied in London my junior year of college and had decided to take a solo weekend trip up from the city to the countryside in October. I was anxious about traveling by myself, and took the 5-hour train up to Penrith station without much of a plan. I had booked a bunk in a “stone tent,” which was really just a barn located on a farm run by a conservative old lady named Mrs. Hodgeson and situated at the foot of Hevellyn (the third tallest mountain in England, which I know isn’t saying much.) The barn had neither heat nor electricity, but it only cost 30 pounds for a two-night stay, and instant coffee was free.
After trying to hike up Helvellyn early in the morning and eventually losing the poorly-marked trail and having to half-walk-half-slide back down, I wanted something a bit less strenuous for the afternoon. Mrs. Hodgeson, after complaining to me about “those young people and their partying,” (not referring to me, as she had decided I was a polite young American) recommended a nice easy stroll through the valley nearby. Along the way, I decided that this was prime Astral Weeks territory and threw in my headphones. Something about the way the music mingled with that moment in time must have stuck with me. Maybe it was the way that the gentle ebb and flow of the instrumentation echoed the rolling of the hills around me. Maybe the air of overwhelmingly strong emotion in Morrison’s vocals and lyrics mirrored my own sense of awe at being halfway across the world from everything I knew, out on my own in some remote valley in England. Whatever it was, I doubt I’ll ever hear Astral Weeks again without thinking of that cloudy afternoon.
I wanted to talk about my own vivid memories of Astral Weeks, because I think, in a way, that the album itself is about memory. It’s incredible to me that Morrison was only 23 when this album was recorded, because it sounds like the work of a dying old man whose entire life is rushing by him all at once and he’s just trying to react to as many images as possible while he’s still alive. Sometimes he repeats lines or words over and over as if a memory is simply too overwhelming and he’s stuck on it; images as simple as a forgotten glove, a train, a street in Belfast grow into hypnotic reveries. On “Cypress Avenue,” Morrison sings of walking alongside a river while drinking cherry wine and makes it sound like a joyous, life-changing experience. A few lines later, as strings and harpsichord swell behind him, he belts out the phrase “rainbow ribbons in her hair” as if it were his last string of words on earth. The best way to describe the lyrics on this album is “hallucinatory,” not because they’re especially psychedelic or trippy (although some are), but because of both their level of detail and their fractured nature. For example, this line from “Ballerina”: “The light is on the left side of your head/And I’m standing in your doorway/And I’m mumbling and I can’t remember/The last thing that ran through my head. ” I can’t think of another lyricist who would bother to mention what side of someone’s head a light was on. The stanza that famously opens the title track (and the album) matches up with anything written by any one of the historically regarded poets in its evocative, yet elusive, nature : “If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dreams/Where mobile steel rims crack/And the ditch in the back road stops…” I legitimately got chills just typing those words.
I don’t believe in a god, but I feel like some kind of divine musical influence must have visited the Astral Weeks sessions. They took place over the course of only a few days in New York City. Morrison had not recorded with any of the backing musicians before, and apparently was awkward and curt in his interactions with them. He sat in an isolated booth and simply told the other musicians to listen to his guitar and vocal parts and then improvise overtop. This proved the perfect atmosphere for the session players, all of whom had strong backgrounds in jazz, individual members having worked with Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Despite the lack of a personal relationship or history between these musicians and Morrison, you can tell that the music spoke for itself and communicated more effectively than Morrison himself could have. Richard Davis anchors everything to solid earth with his double bass and prevents the songs from floating off into the ether, Jay Berliner adds rustic guitar flourishes overtop Morrison’s strumming, and John Payne brings an almost classical element to the album through his contributions with the flute. The fact that Astral Weeks is largely improvised (strings were overdubbed at a later point) never fails to amaze me.
This wouldn’t be a Bored In Pittsburgh write-up if I didn’t spend a few sentences extolling the virtues of one song, in this case bringing it back to the concept of memory. When I hear the circular chord progression, bouncing bass line, and propulsive, waltzing hi-hats of “Sweet Thing,” I am immediately taken back to the kitchen of a drafty second floor flat in St. Andrews, Scotland. I’m making stuffing from a screenshot of an old family recipe that my mom texted to me at a bizarre time of night (hooray for continental time differences), preparing for a Thanksgiving dinner that my American friend and I will be serving to a bunch of Europeans later that night. I distinctly remember playing this song on my shitty iPhone speakers, snow drifting onto the roof outside a window to my right, and somehow knowing that that moment would be locked in my head forever as I searched through overcrowded cabinets for a container of marjoram.
Thus is the effect of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks on a listener’s brain. This is an essential album if I’ve ever heard one.