May 4, 2009
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
There are few songwriters as prolific as Van Morrison. He has released 36 albums in his career but few have engendered as much fondness amongst his fans as his second album from 1968, Astral Weeks. It is nowhere near his best selling album nor did it produce any of his classic hits, like Gloria, Brown-eyed girl, Moondance, Crazy Love, Into the Mystic or Domino. Which raises the question, why do Van Morrison fans as well as critics frequently cite this not only as one of his greatest albums but one of the greatest albums of all time by any artist? Which is a bit like asking, what makes good art?
The songs on Astral Weeks are impressionistic landscapes of romance and redemption. They evoke a time in life when one begins to realize that you make your own identity and your own life. The album has much in common with early masterful albums by Tom Waits with Heart of a Saturday Night or Lou Reed’s Transformer, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, The Band’s Music from Big Pink or even Rickie Lee Jones’ eponymous debut- when these artists seemed to produce their most honest and heartfelt work and told poetic stories of the struggles of every-day people to find love and live life- when they were writing songs because of their need for expression and not of their need to pay the mortgage or some desire for stardom. You can almost see the still-life by Annie Leibowitz of hanging tapestries, patched jeans, overflowing ashtrays and empty wine bottles- the artist’s life.
Many of the songs on Astral Weeks are written in a stream of conscious and can sound half-finished but when combined with Van’s poetry and Irish mysticism, the music is transformative. Just listening to the opening strumming of the song Astral Weeks or the opening lyrics of Sweet Thing, “And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first/ And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst/ And I will never grow so old again,” is to be transported. The connection with great Romantic poets, like Keats, Blake or Wordsworth is immediate.
Which is all to say that it is a true masterpiece of music, and one which I believe, Van never again surpassed, though he keeps trying. Van is currently on an Astral Weeks tour where after an opening set and short break, he returns to play the album in its entirety. When I headed to Berkeley on Sunday night, the rain had threatened all day, but it never came and Van, who can be a very fickle performer, was in good spirits with a strong voice. He was accompanied by 15 class-act musicians. Van always surrounds himself with the very best talent. He performed an opening set that included jazzy takes on some of his standards and then came back for Astral Weeks. The performance of a 40-year old album has its perils. If simply duplicated, it would sound contrived and hopelessly mired in nostalgia but if updated too much, it risks losing the original appeal that the album always had. Van’s performance at the Greek was not too polished or too rough, he got it just about right.