Saturday, 21 January 2012

Kevin Parker Review: Astral Weeks and The Troubles



In 2003 Kevin Parker wrote about Astral Weeks on the Perfect Sound Forever site.  His review adds something different to the hundreds of reviews of Astral Weeks that have gone before it.  He links the album unconvincingly to The Troubles in Northern Ireland that began around the same time as the album was released.  He also claims his hundreds of listens has revealed a coherent narrative in the album.  Here's a sample of what he had to say:

"I spent several hundred listens trying to make emotional, if logical, sense of the lyrics. Gradually, this revealed a strange narrative (which, to me, compliments Van's own assertion that Astral Weeks is some sort of rock opera). Once I found a narrative, though, I had no more realisations about the album. They were small understandings: how the strings' entrance on "Astral Weeks" suddenly creates drama; Richard Davis' bass, by jumping up an octave in the trombone solo of "The Way Young Lovers Do" causes the song to tumble into the chorus; how Connie Kaye's off-kilter cymbal work at the end of "Madame George" adds poignancy. This last listen, though, felt something like an epiphany. "The record was released in 1968 as political violence escalated."
 
Before, I believed Astral Weeks was the painful story of one man who, by way of his obsession with a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, becomes the tragicomic figure of Madame George. The first half of the album, titled "In the Beginning," chronicles this man's (or boy's) estrangement ("I ain't nothing but a stranger in this world"), loss of innocence ("Beside You"), and euphoria of new love ("The Sweet Thing"). Then, something strange happens. The narrator falls in love with a fourteen-year-old girl. Acknowledging my debt to Lester Bangs, I claim only that Van has imagined a character but made no moral judgements about him; Van has dared to ask what if this man genuinely loves her as a person – as a human being – and not as the sick obsession of a pedophile.
 
(Also, as listeners, we assume that the narrator is far older than she is, but there is no evidence of that. We know only that he drives a car and walks by the railroad tracks with his cherry, cherry wine. He could be in his early 20's, late 30's, or mid 60's. What if the narrator is only 18?)
 
Wracked by the pain of this love he cannot express, the narrator becomes "Madame George," and Van shifts the perspective from first person to second person – just as he did in "Beside You." Just as the child is leaving Madame George for the last (first and last?) time, there is human contact. They touch hands, and, in that touch, the child experiences genuine compassion for another human being. It is compassion nearly divine in its depth (hence the rapturous repetition of "the love that loves"). The final songs, "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider," are from the perspective of Madame George, still pining over this girl. Years lapse between "Cyprus Avenue" and "Madame George," and the girl is nearly an adult by now. Nonetheless, it became impossible for Madame George to meet her long ago. He has to resign himself to these last, fleeting glances of her. As the final song begins to fade, he offers up one last cry of frustration, 'Every time I see you, I don't know what to do'."
 
Click on the link above for the rest of the review.

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