Sunday, 17 May 2015

Astral Weeks Number 1 Again

Alan Ewart's list of 75 Essential Albums makes interesting reading.  He's got most of the usual classic albums in his list but also includes 5 albums by Van with Astral weeks at number 1.  Here's most of his wonderful post.  

75 Essential Albums
#1 Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

After 7 weeks of recommending a great album every day I come, at last, to my favourite album of all time the simply unsurpassable Astral Weeks by Celtic Soul legend, Van Morrison.  I have included no less than five Van Morrison albums in my list of 75 essential albums, Common One, Into The Music, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and Moondance all making the cut.  It will be clear that I am a massive fan of Morrison’s work and to be frank I could have included 17 of his 30 plus albums in my top 75.  

The real strength of Morrison’s music lies in its originality, its spirituality, its depth and its life affirming freedom.  Nowhere is this more evident than on Astral Weeks.  This is an extraordinary album on so many levels.  It has influenced generations of musicians and yet before Van walked into the studio he had never met much less played with most of the jazz musicians who played on the album.  Rolling Stone points out that:

“It also sounds like the work of a group of musicians who had become finely attuned to one another through years of working together — but, in fact, Morrison had made his name with rock songs like Gloria and Here Comes the Night and he sang Astral Weeks sitting by himself in a glass-enclosed booth, scarcely communicating with the session musicians, who barely knew who he was.”

The album was recorded in just a few days and whilst Astral Weeks was critically acclaimed from its release and yet it was never a huge chart success.  Appreciation of the album increased as years past and it achieved legendary status with many reviewers over the years hailing it as the best album ever made.  The late great Lester Bangs said:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves paralysed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.  It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.  Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.”

Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Astral Weeks. It is incredibly complex, obtuse, deep, surreal, allegorical and impossible to analyse.  It is an album that reaches right down into your soul, it becomes a part of you.  Even after many years and thousands of listens I find something new in the album almost every time I listen to it and there is rarely a week, much less a month when I don’t listen to it.

The album is often seen as a concept album and indeed it does progress through a life cycle from ‘Taking care of your boy/ seeing that he’s got clean clothes / putting on his little red shoes’ in the opening title track through to “I know you’re dying, baby / And I know you know it, too” in closing track ‘Slim Slow Slider’.  For many Astral Weeks was the ultimate ‘stoner’ album, something to lay back and absorb, to allow yourself to be carried away by it.  It may be the fact that the album is difficult to understand that leads people to this conclusion.  It is absorbing, a piece of fine art to be revered and enjoyed time and again.

Every song creates incredibly powerful imagery, it showcases Morrison’s abilities as a storyteller but above all it highlights his abilities as a vocalist.  It shows his mastery of phrasing and timing and the lyrics do paint pictures even if those pictures are sometimes disturbing.  The beauty of Sweet Thing “you shall take me strongly In your arms again, And I will not remember That I even felt the pain” contrasts with the lyrics in Cyprus Avenue where a presumably adult male sits in his car shaking and trembling as Van sings “nobody stops me from loving you baby, So young and bold, fourteen years old.”  

The joy of young lovers who  “sat on our own star and dreamt of the way that we were” contrasting with the transvestite Madame George “sitting in the corner playing dominoes in drag.”  It is complex, interesting and thought provoking piece of work.  It is the interest and engagement, the light and the dark, the joy and the sadness, the mundane and the spiritual which all blends together to create a piece of musical art that I doubt will ever be equalled much less surpassed.

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