Classic Vinyl: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”

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The poetic mind, at certain critical times in musical history, comes out of the woodwork to lay its claim to the hearts and souls of listeners. It is a rare thing, though, because when it comes to chart-blasting hits and feel-good anthems, the poets of this world are just not needed. At different times and in different places, the ones that rise in the music world are the pop auteurs,  the rock ‘n’ roll messiahs, or the urban prophets. They are disco kings and pretty boy crooners, scenesters with a smirk on their face, or art school kids with world-beat in their heart.

This is because the particular mind and heart of the poet isn’t particularly that well-suited to the world of music. Yes, romantic turns of verse and genius flashes of imagery have their place in songs, but often poets can’t sustain that dazzling veneer of pop stars, or play the game of business savvy managers and slick record companies. They fall back into obscurity, singing their songs and reciting their verses to the forest and the birds, or in dimly lit coffee shops in coastal towns across the world, lost again in their own dreams.

In the 1960s the music world saw the emergence of an unprecedented amount of poets, coming out of the woodwork to paint their dreams onto emerging ideas of psychedelic rock and jazz-infused folk. Suddenly these dionysian, romantic heroes were plunged deep into these emerging scenes of hard rock and experimental jazz, which had quickly become the new centers of bohemian life across the world. One can bring some of these young poets easily to mind, especially those who burned brightest, such as the bacchanalian Jim Morrison, or the jingle jangled wordsmith Bob Dylan. But there was one more who made such a profound poetic musical statement that it still stands out as an anomaly today.

“Astral Weeks,” the 1968 album by Van Morrison, stands out even 50 years later as a true poet’s album, a rare record of spiritually evocative songs that seem to organically form from cascades of instruments and voice. The songs circle, repeat themselves, lacking any traditional structures of verse and chorus, instead twirling off in flights of fancy and a novelist’s sense of setting a scene. As the jazz instrumentals slowly build into frenzied, cycling riffs and swirling harmonic interludes, the words pouring out of Van Morrison’s mouth paint scenes of provincial towns and sunlit avenues, words that aren’t easily understood but penetrate deep into your psyche like a sword slashing down the illusion that is the world.

Consider the way that Astral Weeks begins:

“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.”

The entrance into a dream, the vibrant imagery, the words that fuse metaphors into each other; these all set the stage for the poetic journey of “Astral Weeks.” In these songs Morrison paints scenes as if he was a young author in Paris, or a romantic bohemian discovering aching beauty and romantic yearning in a small, seaside town that only exists in his mind. As he ditches traditional ideas of narrative and song structure, coming to take its place are song cycles of poetic storytelling. Like dream logic, the poet makes connections and creates story lines of his own, collating street corners with a woman’s windswept hair or the soft glow of the night with the words of a passerby. “Astral Weeks” follows this sort of narrative, one controlled by the emotional logic of the poet. If the listener is willing to follow along, to play the poet’s game, what he will find is a world of delights, one that is passing away as soon as it appears, melancholy and ecstasy living together side by side.

The strange thing about “Astral Weeks” is that it came less than two years after Morrison had scored a big hit with the single “Brown-Eyed Girl,” a radio-friendly, pop-oriented song if there ever was one. For this to be his second album illustrates what was yearning to free itself from Morrison’s mind, a sense of those crossroads in life between childlike wonder and the aching melancholy of loss. A pop song can teach us a lesson or stir our memories, but to dig deeper into the great mystery of this world Morrison had to find a different space to sing in, one that, like a dream, seems never ending and wondrous, as long as we don’t realize that we will soon wake up.

Morrison, commenting on “Astral Weeks” later on his career, said that these songs were “from another sort of place.” He called them “poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination.” This “channeling,” as he puts it, seems to be a songwriting technique that lends itself to poetry, to what some may call divine inspiration. This mystical feeling shines like a light from the depths of our psyche. Morrison was a songwriter lucky enough to tap into that place once in his career.

Over the years washes of admiration have poured in for this album. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman brought it up at an awards show. Bruce Springsteen has said that it made him trust in beauty and a “sense of the divine.” Whatever substance is running through the veins of “Astral Weeks,” it has infected many people, which is why, 50 years later, it still continues to receive acknowledgement as a masterpiece from the likes of Pitchfork.

The album’s centerpiece, “Madame George,” has become legendary in the world of music. It has transcended its own limitations, found its words repeated through the actor’s lips at awards shows, or : “And the loves to love to love the love”. The way that Morrison hums a little melody only for the strings to discover it bars later, emerging like sunlight in a new dawn and rising ever higher into the song’s mix.

If you choose to dive into “Astral Weeks,” you must be prepared to enter the dream logic of the poet for a time, to lose yourself for a few mystical moments in its expansive reverberations. Once you enter, you will never be the same again. You will be transformed for a time, dancing and gliding between the tones of the music, smiling like a child again in the warm sunlight, before the dream ends again, like at the end of “Slim Slow Slider,” and you wake up.

 

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