Monday, August 22, 2011

Van Morrison 2: Astral Weeks

While he’d been a recording artist for a while, and even been on the pop charts as a solo artist, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s first real album, and that’s where anyone should really start.
It’s not the kind of album that grabs you immediately; like many of the great ones, it slowly sinks into your brain until you simply have to have it. It’s a late-night narcotic that evokes autumn. As a statement of art, it’s divided not in sides, but into “Part One: In The Beginning” and “Part Two: Afterwards”. Most of the accompanists are jazz guys, adding to the mood.
The title track begins with a simple bass run over two chords, setting the stage for Van to rap a stream of consciousness that barely rhymes, like a train traveling over the green hills before coming to the stop where he gets off. “Beside You” begins very quietly and stays there, a rambling acoustic guitar strummed beneath seemingly disconnected verses. It’s a very seductive sound, especially when compared to the earlier, more rocking version that would emerge after Van got big. After those, “Sweet Thing” is almost conventional, with its easy-to-follow structure and penetrable lyric. It’s a misleading setup for “Cyprus Avenue”, one of dozens of reveries of his hometown he’d record over his career. It’s a simple twelve-bar blues, but presented in such a unique way, with his voice changing on every line. (The jury’s still out on whether the narrator is a pedophile or not.)
“The Way Young Lovers Do” sounds a little too much of its era, but succeeds thanks to the wonderful bridge heard twice and the first mention of gardens wet with rain. He’d learn to arrange horns better before long. To this day the most discussed song on the album is “Madame George”, a song Van has refused to explain adequately. It begins, again, on Cyprus Avenue, following a simple I-IV-V chord sequence through observations of a party, ruminations on the noun and verb form of love, and finally taking the train away from it all. The love song to a “Ballerina” is achingly gentle and sweet, another simple structure enhanced by an amazing performance. “Slim Slow Slider” follows the blues pattern even further with death imagery and blatant acknowledgement, before ending abruptly with a saxophone flourish that fades.
Astral Weeks is a slow burner, one that once you “get”, you understand that it truly is all good. This is where the legend of Caledonia soul, the Belfast Cowboy all began—gardens wet with rain, tree-lined streets, thinking back to simpler days and immersing oneself in literature and music.
The mystery of the album would only grow in with each passing year, particularly as new converts came aboard. So it was with some excitement and trepidation that an “Expanded & Remastered” edition—its first such upgrade since its first appearance on CD back in the late ‘80s—would include four bonus tracks from the sessions. Take 1 of “Beside You” is close to the one used on the album, as is take four of “Madame George”, though particularly stark without the orchestration. “Ballerina” is extended by a minute without revealing much, but the 94 seconds added to “Slim Slow Slider” prove the longtime rumor that the song went past the fade used on the LP. Most musical Holy Grails are better on paper than they are to the ears, and this one will likely divide the faithful. (Spoiler alert: it picks up after the familiar fade, and consists of freeform vamping between the acoustic guitar, bass and sax, before Van starts singing “glory be to Him” to the tune of what would emerge as the verse from “Everyone”. Another reason why they probably lopped it off would be the guitar being out of tune.)

Van Morrison Astral Weeks (1968)—
2015 Expanded & Remastered CD: same as 1968, plus 4 extra tracks

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