Warner Bros. CD 1768
Van Morrison: Guitar/Keyboards/Saxophone/Vocal
Richard Davis: Bass
John Payne: Flute
Jay Berliner: Guitar
Connie Kay: Drums
Lewis Merenstein: Producer
Warren Smith: Percussion
Review by Scott Thomas:
Many critics have used the term "impressionistic" to describe Morrison's technique in Astral Weeks. Like impressionist paintings, the album depicts nature as patterns of shadow, light, and color while images (a viaduct, a garden, a railway station) appear and disappear without ever being given concrete surfaces or well-defined outlines. This is the result of Dylan-inspired obliqueness (e.g.; "pointed idle breeze"), Morrison's metrically and rhythmically adventurous singing style, and the dynamism of the backing instrumentation; guitar, bass, and strings all compete with the singer for the listener's attention. When all of this is filtered through Morrison's thick Belfast accent, the listener is left with impressions instead of images, intimations in place of explanations, mystery instead of clarity. This vagueness, which allows ample play for a listener's own imagination, may be the key to the album's enduring popularity with critics and fans.
One of the most elusive aspects of Astral Weeks is its underlying narrative. Critics have been right to describe the album as a "song cycle." While not as thematically unified as bona fide "concept albums" like the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, neither is Astral Weeks a collection of unrelated, wholly independent songs. In between its exultant beginning and cacophonous ending, we can sense a story of young love anticipated, consummated, and lost, a story that holds the anticipation of an event against the event itself, charts the inevitable clash between an ideal and the hard earth, and documents an adolescent's first realization of mortality.
"Astral Weeks," the opening song, introduces a conceit that would become the philosophical and emotional cornerstone of all of Van's subsequent works; the belief that love between a man and a woman is the closest mortal, earthbound beings like ourselves can come to experiencing Heaven (at least in this life). This marriage of the spiritual and physical is mirrored in the album's instrumentation. The Earth is represented by Van's urgent acoustic guitar and volcanic singing and by Richard Davis's volatile upright bass. Heaven resides in the percussion (Connie Kay's light snare and cymbal work, vibes, chimes, triangle), flute, harpsichord, and the spare but gorgeous string arrangements. In between, striding both planes, is Jay Berliner's unclassifiable efforts on lead acoustic guitar.
The first three tracks, "Astral Weeks," "Beside You," and "Sweet Thing," float along as if in a dream. "Beside You" is detached from any rhythmic moorings; bass, flute, guitars, and vocals drift on a gentle, but meandering current fraught with occasional shallows and eddies. Morrison repeats lines, bends notes, and switches meter at every opportunity. In doing so, he renders the opaque, Dylanesque lyrics almost indecipherable. Only the refrain "I stand beside you" comes out unscathed as if that is all that really matters anyway. "Sweet Thing," though less radical in its musical approach, is pure daydream: the singer never abandons his use of the future tense.
The stunning "Cypress Avenue" fades out just as the dream is about to become reality. The construction is basic blues, the landscape is filled with objects and names, and the singer, as he approaches his beloved, bounces awkwardly from tongue-tied bashfulness to swaggering brashness. Somewhere between the walk down the railroad tracks at the end of the song and the rain-drenched fields in the next song, their love is consummated.
"The Way Young Lovers Do" is an interesting one. On its surface, with its images of tranquil lovers walking through fields and kissing on front stoops, it seems to deliver the romantic bliss anticipated so fervently in "Sweet Thing." The music, however, betrays some disturbing undercurrents. Richard Davis's bass is domineering, aggressive, and sometimes violent, and instead of creating a lush, climactic swell, the strings poke and prod.
"Madame George" is similarly perturbing. On a version recorded while Van was still at Bang, it was beefed up with a raucous rock & roll backing and "What's Going On?"-style party noises. In that context, the song, which describes a party thrown by what seems to be a transvestite, was a celebration of a wild afternoon. In that version, the stoned singer sees the outrageous Madame George as a sideshow attraction, a source of amusement, but here, with the slower tempo and acoustic setting, revelry is displaced by a sense of detachment: the singer has outgrown pranks and parties. The slow escape at the end of the song ("Say good-bye...dry your eye") signals a final departure from adolescence.
The darker moods that hide beneath the pleasant facades of "The Way Young Lovers Do," "Madame George," and "Ballerina" finally surface on the album's final track, "Slim Slo Slider." "Slim Slo Slider" is the record's sparsest cut boasting only Morrison's acoustic guitar, Davis's bass, and John Payne's eerie, reverbed soprano sax. The song, which teeters back and forth between ecstasy and despair, wraps up with a well-worn blues symbol of jealousy and lost love: the Cadillac. The singer's realization that his lover has left him for a richer man is not his last realization, however: "I know you're dying / And I know you know it too," he laments in the final stanza. It is never made clear whether this death is literal or metaphorical, and it doesn't really matter. Earthly bliss is transient as is earthly life itself, and we are helpless to do anything about it. Astral Weeks' last note is a cacophony of Morrison slapping the body of his guitar, Davis snapping his bass strings, and Payne forcing stray, ugly notes out of his sax. Suddenly, everything is in shards.
From the Ritchie Yorke bio, page 52:
'It's not true that we recorded a forty-five minute track for Astral Weeks,' says Van. 'The truth is that I had a song at that time that was about forty-five minutes long, but it wasn't recorded for the album. I don't think that I could ever do it again. I made a rough tape recording of it with just myself and another guitar player and we sat down and I did it onto a small tape. But I didn't try it again because I knew that I couldn't recapture what we had before. The original tape was just so spontaneous. Even the lyrics were spontaneous. I could sing them again, but I could never sing them the same way. So I never tried.'
'There were only two tracks we recorded that did not appear on Astral Weeks. One was about Jesse James and the other about trains. They were both just basic blues numbers. That's why they didn't fit in with the album. They were both in another bag.'"