Week Sixteen: Astral Weeks

For years, I couldn’t understand why anyone would actually deliberately choose to listen to a Van Morrison record. I have a dim memory of one or other of my parents having one of his 80s or 90s albums and playing it a lot in the car, although my best efforts to work out which one it was using Spotify have turned up nothing, and I’m starting to wonder if I’d confused it in my mind with someone or something else entirely. But any which way, I knew who he was and I couldn’t stand his voice. I didn’t get the appeal of his take on rhythm and blues. I certainly didn’t understand why he was considered to be a musical great.

And then one evening, three or four years ago, I was doing the music round of the pub quiz at the Auld Hoose and something caught my ear. I didn’t recognise what it was, but there was nothing unusual about that – while there was once a time when I was quite a useful member of a music quiz team, my ignorance of popular music after around about 1999 is quite a handicap). It was only when the answers were read out that I learned it was Sweet Thing by Van Morrison. Which got me to wondering if I had been wrong to write off his work so casually in my teens.
One of the great things about on-demand streaming is that it no longer costs anything to satisfy one’s curiosity. No more that awkward feeling of having spent fifteen quid on a record that you realise you are only ever going to listen to once. So rather than completely forget about the fact that the first 20 seconds of Sweet Thing had caught my ear, I went home from the pub and stuck Astral Weeks on and was forced to concede that I’d been wrong about Van Morrison for all these years. Or maybe it is just that I needed to hear this record at the right time. I suspect that my fifteen year old self would always have struggled to ‘get’ this album, would have thought it sounded old-fashioned and dull. But my fifteen year old self was wrong about many things…

I’ve heard it described elsewhere as a folk/jazz album, but what I think it really is is the merging of folk and soul music. The instrumentation is very much in the tradition of folk music – though specifically Irish rather than British or American folk – you would never get so many flutes on a British folk record. But Morrison’s vocal delivery puts me in mind of 60s Detroit soul records. Not his singing voice, he’s no threat to Marvin Gaye on that score.  I once remember someone saying of Bob Dylan “people say he’s a terrible singer. He’s not, he’s a great singer, but he’s got a terrible voice.” and the same is all the more true of Van Morrison. I love his phrasing on tracks like The Way Young Lovers Do and Cypress Avenue but if nasal, strained vocals bother you, then you’re not going to get on with this record. That said, I can’t quite decide if I like the record in spite of Morrison’s vocals or whether it is in fact a part of the charm. If Van Morrison had been a more conventional folk singer, would it be a better album, or would it just sound a bit dull and flat?

Another inappropriate musical parallel: Just as last week I listened to Childish Gambino and heard echoes of Radiohead, now I find myself wondering if this is a kind of pre-cursor of electronic trance music. Not musically; I’m not going to pretend to be a connoisseur of trance music, but I don’t think you hear much in the way of double bass, flute or acoustic guitar. But rather in the way that the record uses repetition – of lyrics, of particular musical phrases, to achieve a kind of trance-like effect. Maybe the people who were listening to Armin Van Buuren in the late 1990s were the children of the people who bought Astral Weeks in the late 60s.

In terms of the songs themselves, it’s an album which, like Week 9’s Kind of Blue, is best listened to as a whole. The tracks do kind of blend into each other. Although the nine minute centre-piece Madame George (in which he’s clearly singing ‘Madame Joy’ – I wonder if the song’s title is a little in-joke: Van Morrison’s first name being George) does stand out. And I do still like Sweet Thing. I don’t know if it is just because I know the story of how the album was recorded – the fact that the session musicians brought in had little idea of what they were meant to be playing and it was all done in a couple of weeks, but it does sound like the result of an unexpectedly successful improv jamming session. A chance moment of inspiration that, to judge by the other stuff I’ve listened to, he never quite managed to pull off again.

Highlights: Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing, Madame George

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