astral weeks

#16: Van Morrison - "Astral Weeks" (1968)

Reviewing is a funny business. Films, books and theatre were very much my wheelhouse. Probably because I had one or more of training, experience and ambition in each of them. I understood what was involved, the pitfalls, the effort, the triumph. Music didn't feature. Then Fiona came to me with the premise behind 52A/52W. It scared me, in the good way. 

This experiment isn't just about getting more familiar with music but also training my critiques in an area I don't feel that I have much standing in. Music is something I've always enjoyed because, y'know, I'm human. I've been in awe of the technically adept and hugely talented musicians that have crossed my path but understanding music with any skill, that's beyond me. Though I did use to play a mean ocarina back in primary school. That tells you a lot about me - and my primary school. I've dabbled with singing lessons on and off but mainly as an aid to overall vocal technique, not for any serious performing or professional means.

What I'm getting at here is that music is a powerful beast that I've played with and admired from afar but have never tamed or claimed as a house pet. Thinking and talking about music is still very new to me but I think that I can just about apply my own principles of criticism and get by - though you are more than free to disagree, Dear Reader, and tell me why on our various contactables.

I am meandering about the essence of criticism because this is a very personal response to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. That's what struck me about it, that I wasn't expecting it to get under my skin how it has but that's where we are. I'm going to consider it objectively, obviously, and place it in the wider canon as best I can, which many others have done pretty well because it's kind of a big deal as an album don't you know... (I vaguely did but didn't know that Van Morrison was Northern Irish until last week so there you go) But, in order to be honest and transparent, leaving out the impact it has had on me would not be doing good criticism, in my book. So if you don't mind reading from my book too, subjective disclaimer duly delivered, shall we?

Back in 2012, Rolling Stone put Astral Weeks at no. 19 in their 500-strong list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. No mean feat, there, particularly for a debut solo album conceived and recorded in the wake of a nasty legal battle between Morrison and the widow of the head of his former record label, Bert Berns. Berns and Morrison were disputing Morrison's musical future - Berns thought he should continue in the pop vein whereas Morrison wanted to try new musical territory - and Berns died of a heart attack, having a previously undiscovered congenital heart defect. His widow, Ilene, blamed Morrison. Astral Weeks is definitely a massive departure from Morrison's previous work, perhaps best characterised by Brown Eyed Girl, and I can't help but wonder if there's a strange grief and working through to acceptance at play here, that Morrison did eventually get to try a new sound but in the aftermath of significant stress and tragedy.

Not that I have been through anything like Morrison or the Berns recently but I've had a few knocks to my confidence, alongside some health issues in my immediate family, the bruises of which I'm nursing. I won't go into specific detail but suffice to say I'm doing a lot of facing down my ego. So it's probably surprising only to me that an album entitled Astral Weeks, which references the idea that there's a spiritual body separate from the physical as well as rebirth, during Easter, has been quite so effecting. Morrison himself has been modest about the album's success and lasting legacy, but its inception and recording sounds like a mysterious, fluid process. Divination, even. The musicians in the band have been reported as saying that they had no idea what Morrison wanted from them, as he didn't tell them at any point. When discussing the lyrics, Morrison says that he didn't really understood what they meant. They came from a stream-of-consciousness rather than any specific life experience. Morrison was guided more by representing certain feelings instead of the facts. Not about anyone in particular but still about specific human experiences, he created something that everyone had a window into.

Well, that's how it made me feel. Like most days, I began with a to-do list. My confidence and motivation has been ebbing rather than flowing of late, which has got in the way of my efficiency with doing things, which gets at my confidence... So there's a spiral. It's slow just now but I've been on it before and I know the consequences of leaving it for too long. After having just recovered from a bad virus that left me bedridden for a week, I woke up with a hefty cold. I am not the best patient. Unable to do much, I fret about not doing much, which impedes relaxing and just getting better. This was one of those days were I couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't show for much, feeling like I'd let people down having to cancel and postpone... Then, I thought, well. Better crack on with listening to this week's album, seeming as I have to write about it and all. I sat down, pressed play - and something about those first few chords, I felt the shackles and tangles of my mind and the day disappear. I was streamlined.

But how does it sound? Objectively speaking, in an attempt to understand Astral Weeks as part of the wider musical canon, there's a lot going on. There's folk elements, jazz, classical, rock - but really, it sounds like an entirely organic string of sound. It's hard to separate the strands because, well, I didn't want to. It's wholesome and pure, not in an ascetic sense, but in a round, deep, ripeness. Though I'm not a synaesthete, when I closed my eyes - I genuinely listened to most of this album with my eyes closed, you guys - I could see colours, shapes, movement. Like any abstract art worth its salt - maybe more than a pinch - Astral Weeks has direction and form that guide you through something unfamiliar but it's all the more fresh for being strange. It made me think of standing in front of a huge Rothko or Pollock painting, and of what was said about the surrealist H. R. Giger's work on the eponymous Alien, that it looked like something from a dream, something rising to the surface from your unconscious mind. Morrison's voice is bold and expressive but not always crystal clear. It's another instrument among many. The lyrics are there if you listen out for them but Morrison seems to be more interested in cohesion, producing a certain sound from several, rather than projecting his own singing voice. His own artistic voice, well that's very much there. The meaning of the words are there but they're not the sole source of meaning. They're poetic and prayer-like in places. Repetition is used within each track but not to the point of wearing what's there thin to the point of nihilism. 

Listening to the whole album, start to finish in one sitting, with my eyes closed - it made me feel better. I'm streaming it through Spotify but I wonder what it'd be like to have it on vinyl. Eight tracks in total, four on each side. Part One: In the Beginning. Part Two: Afterwards. Beginning of what? After what? It doesn't matter. The event isn't the point. The anticipation of it, then the acceptance of whatever it is, whatever it has been - those are key. There isn't a neat resolution because Astral Weeks doesn't follow a specifically conventional narrative but it does have a simple spine of passing through time, indulging in nostalgia - and being lost. 

I have been feeling a bit lost recently. I don't think I'm the only one. Morrison himself said of the album that, "You have to understand something,...A lot of this ... there was no choice. I was totally broke. So I didn't have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do." This basic purity comes through, not in a sense of desperation but in someone doing what they want to do and what they have to do in one fell swoop. Listening to this album gave me a vantage point, an emotional osmosis where my feelings overflowed into a sound that recognised and represented those feelings, reducing mine to bearable levels. Maybe you won't feel the same. But I hope there's something out there like this for you. 

This isn't the first album I've had this reaction to, as there have been different ones for different stages in my life, including one that I won't mention because our mega spreadsheet of planning-ahead glory informs me that Fiona is going to review it, but these kinds of albums genuinely keep me sane. The final track, Slim Slow Slider, is a brief one. It sounds like the thought process of fretting about how to look after someone you know, who you think is in trouble. It finishes with Morrison singing, "Every time I see you / I just don't know what to do", then slapping his guitar. And then it's just done. Ambiguous and unsolved. 

The entry for Astral Weeks on the Rolling Stone website concludes that "[Morrison] was going deep inside himself, without a net or fear." That is a kind of bravery I aspire to, in creative ventures and in life. If I manage to come up with anything close to Astral Weeks then I'll be astounded. If I don't, so be it - but at least I'll have done what I have to do.

Sometimes that's enough.