You can see why Van can be contemptuous of journalists at times. In the following review of Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl that appeared in The Spectator back in 2009, the main point of the piece is how weird it is that Van Morrison is smiling on the front cover. Again, the classic cliche 'curmudeon' is used. Here’s some Charles Spencer’s ‘insightful’ piece.
Keep on smiling
One of Van Morrison’s umpteen albums is called What’s Wrong with this Picture? It’s a question long-term fans are likely to echo as they contemplate the cover of his new release, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
One of Van Morrison’s umpteen albums is called What’s Wrong with this Picture? It’s a question long-term fans are likely to echo as they contemplate the cover of his new release, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. What’s wrong is that Van Morrison is smiling. This is, to say the least, unusual.
Morrison is the most famous curmudgeon in popular music and he doesn’t do smiles. He prefers to appear on his record sleeves looking moody, depressed or downright aggressive. The brooding, pallid figure that appears on the front of one of his last truly great albums, Poetic Champions Compose (1987), looks so openly contemptuous that it must have had a terrible effect on sales. ‘You think you are good enough to listen to this?’ Van’s curled lip seems to suggest.
So improbable is the idea of a smiling Van that some are suggesting that the extraordinary cheerful image of him showing off his immaculately white and gleaming gnashers must have been Photoshopped. His record company has denied it. This really is Van Morrison, smiling benignly at his audience at a concert performance last year at the Hollywood bowl.
Almost as unlikely as that smile is the fact that Morrison has revisited his first officially released solo album. Over the years he has downplayed Astral Weeks (1968), which regularly comes near the top of those endless lists of the greatest albums of all time. And in a way one can understand why. It was recorded in just a couple of sessions with sceptical jazz musicians he had never worked with before. Morrison was 23, a young man in a hurry in New York after breaking up with that great Northern Irish rhythm and blues band Them. And he came up with a masterpiece that he has never bettered. It must be galling to plod on year after year, decade after decade, and know that your best, your unbeatable best, was recorded almost by accident right at the start of your solo career.
Astral Weeks is a record of love and loss, mortality and spiritual seeking. It is drenched in nostalgia for a vanished past, and seems to conjure many of its images from Morrison’s own Belfast childhood. The writing is dense with imagery, while the extraordinarily spontaneous music — apparently Morrison simply sketched the tunes on his guitar and expected the session men to follow, which they did, brilliantly — draws deeply from folk, blues and jazz.
I’ve been listening to Astral Weeks for 40 years and it is that rare thing, a truly inexhaustible pop record. What seems dense and intimidating at first eventually becomes a familiar and much-loved friend, though this is never an easy listen. The album burns with a rare, raw intensity. There are themes here that become leitmotifs throughout Morrison’s work — gardens all wet with rain, walking down by the railroad — and a feeling that spiritual enlightenment is strongly connected to carnal desire. ‘So young and bold/Fourteen years old’ an infatuated Van almost sobs at the end of Cyprus Avenue, though I notice this devastating line no longer has a place on the live recording.
So the first thing to be said is that Morrison is fully engaged here. There is a spontaneity and a sense of purpose we haven’t heard from him in a long time. The voice is deeper and rougher than it was four decades ago, but still highly expressive, and the band, with original guitarist Jay Berliner back on board, is in glorious form. There are passages where Morrison really stretches out, tacking on new improvisatory endings to some of the songs.
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But at least Van the Man is trying again, and perhaps this return to former glory will inspire him to come up with something equally new and fresh in old age. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Morrison will soon be back on autopilot, with more songs moaning about the iniquities of record companies and the misery of life in the public eye.