Van was the vocalist with Them (an Irish version of the Stones, if you like) and they had a few big hit singles in the glory days. He is a multi-instrumentalist (piano, sax, guitar and much more besides) but in truth his best instrument is his voice. Them proved much too narrow a channel for Van and he split the band up once he tired of chasing chart success, promptly disappearing to the US to hone his ‘Irish / Caledonian’ vision and find the best way to express it.
Astral Weeks appeared in 1969 and I first heard tracks from it on Radio One’s more progressive programmes hosted by people like Pete Drummond and John Peel. I bought the album as soon as I’d saved up enough pocket money!
If you have read W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce or Flann O’Brien, for example, you will know that the ‘Irish’ poetic or prose voice is rich, evocative and often downright difficult to comprehend. So too are Van’s lyrics. But, down the years, I’ve taken the view that such concerns do not matter – each time I listen there is something fresh to consider (and after forty years that is saying something). Madame George engages me in exactly the same way that Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row does, and I reckon I’d need them both in my Desert Island knapsack. But Astral Weeks is no one-trick pony – open your heart to Sweet Thing, Cypress Avenue, Madame George, Ballerina (ahh-sigh) and Astral Weeks itself and the payback will surely be huge. Over to you.
3 thoughts on “Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1969)”
A bit like the Ulysses of pop albums – not just because it’s Irish and steeped in irishness (Belfast standing in for Dublin here) but also because it is not the most accessible record (in particular the lyrics are very dense). Like Ulysses though, it richly rewards every moment spend exploring it. Plus, if I had to name just a single favourite pop record, Astral Weeks would be it.
Well that is very good to hear. I really do like this album and have listened to it many times since Cliff sent it to me, but again I think I need to focus more on the poetry, which is clearly such an important aspect of it. Not sure the comparison to Ulysses is hugely encouraging though! 😂
Part of why the lyrics on Astral Weeks were (and have remained to this day) so impenetrable to me is because I just can’t understand what the hell he is singing – compared to that, Ulysses was easy going! I assume that a native speaker will have somewhat less issues with that, and I very much hope that my weird comparison won’t deter you from enjoying this album. (And really, everyone should read Ulyssesy at least once.)