ASTRAL WEEKS – Van Morrison
Sometimes when I meditate on rocks near sacred sites on the prairies, music will arise from the earth. Subtle, drifting harmonics weave gentle rustles to create, what’s called in Ireland and Scotland, planxty, fairy music, earth music. Today, thanks to Brian Eno and the environmental sound effects business, we have plenty of examples approaching the essence, if not the core, of planxty. However, in 1968 there was nothing, nothing like Astral Weeks. It was a quantum leap as brave as it was unexpected.
Previously singer with Them, the Belfast band with some of the raunchiest British Invasion hits, Van Morrison split to write (lucky for him) and perform Brown-Eyed Girl and an album of off-kilter pop songs and wacky jams called Blowin’ Your Mind. Bang Records released it in North America in 1967. It was raw energetic rock and roll, a little crazy, a little sweet.
Van’s next album, Astral Weeks, is the exact opposite. It’s an eerie journey down misty streets of ancient European cities, through enchanted groves with smiling trees that existed only in imagination until Van managed to bring them hauntingly to life in an original way. It’s a lilt of language that our little Irishman learned by listening to speech rhythms, the sound of the streets and the wind through the trees.
I would hear tracks from Astral Weeks in the middle of the night on CHUM-FM in Toronto in 1968 and it would lift me back to the mysterious prairie, to some spiritual root that took decades to show growth. Over the years, Astral Weeks was always there to remind me of that source, that immanence. It is durable music, a future attractor for me, promising something more but always shrouded in a haze of mystery.
The unbearable lightness of the instruments, barely played yet ringing with life, is a counter to the plaintive sometimes woozy young Van, suddenly not so young anymore, suddenly a sage, a Witness, wisdom clinging to every phrase, echoes in a dream. Astral Weeks is a promise of Spirit. The glimpses of street life that the title track offers are the spooky stuff of Fellini’s vision; wild, grotesque faces and scenes emerge, abide then withdraw into shadow.
Jay Berliner plays the most expressive and supportive guitar throughout this album; his understanding of the songs is wise. The sustenance of Van’s vision is Jay’s light touch.
Beside You is one of those ordinary places that becomes suddenly special when you really see it. Sweet Thing is youthful country comfort in the extreme. There is a hint of cow plop in the air, the fields are the juiciest of green clothed in their spring sprouts and the sky so blue the word’s meaning dissolves into it. Bubbling throughout the album is the pagan sexual connection to the land, the necessary fertilization of fields and the results of failing to do so.
Cyprus Avenue, meanwhile, has us caught one more time. We’ve all been there. It’s autumn, tongue-tied youth; horny images arise from between the trees along the old road. The ambiguity of the situation adds to the mystery of the place. Van gets laid. The strange accompaniment with the dripping harpsichord fades with Van stoking it into a small frenzy and the side ends. This is the vinyl version remember.
Vibraphone buoys up the burble of Young Lovers Do. This is Van’s coolest jazz, the smoothest horns he’d have until I’ve Been Working on His Band and Street Choir. The rhythm of most of these songs shouldn’t work but they somehow hang together long enough to made it through the colour field that supports Van’s enchanted brambly vocals.
Next we are honoured to meet Madame George, sexual ambiguity hangs in a lean lingering cloud across the silent room, broken by the appearance of Madame. “That’s when you fall.” The image of “dominoes in drag” has often occurred to me in daily life, reflected in very conformist, conventional people. Small string quartets sprout like mushrooms in the night, a bit of cymbals and the love pours forth from the druggy dream, from the retreat.
In Ballerina we are in flight from the onset, madly in love, discombobulated, afloat on the wheeze and strum of an all-fairy band. The Incredible String Band probably approached similar inner territory as this album, their mythic Celtic heritage just as prominent.
Slim Slow Slider is a haunted encounter with death, personified by an ex. “Every time I see you, I just don’t know what to do” is the last line before the song and the album suddenly break apart, the drum flaps and flutters away and the side and the slide are over.
What a haunted journey we have just been on, a sojourn to soft places, watched over by warm imagination! And we can return anytime, anytime at all.
Favourite Track: Astral Weeks