(This review cross-posted at Sputnikmusic.com)
Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, his first "proper" solo album after departing popular garage rockers Them*, has become one of those artistic touchstones that practically wards off anyone actually enjoying it, as to touch a LP (or DVD, or copied painting) would rub the oily grease of the filthy and mortal onto timelessness and thus muck it up. But few rock albums -- if you could call the jazz-folk-classical music contained within "rock" by any stretch -- are as paradoxically inviting as this ultra-complex recording. What The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was to jazz, so too was this to pop: a poetic, rich expression of desperate romanticism and hope from a notoriously mercurial, yet wildly ingenious, performer.
The eight tracks that make up Astral Weeks are love songs, but that's far too general an assessment. Each song is its own story, a tale of wretched, despairing individuals looking for their place in the world and, more importantly, someone with whom to share that space. Astral Weeks contains heaps of heartbreak, but it is not a break-up album. It's not even an album about striking out. It's about never getting up to bat in the first place; like the great sonnets, Astral Weeks deals with the one-sided love a freak of the underclass feels for someone so far outside his caste that to even speak to that person would cause social embarrassment for the object of desire.
The title track openly deals with this pain, as Morrison croons to a woman involved with a far more dapper man than he. "Takin’ good care of your boy/Seein’ that he’s got clean clothes/Puttin’ on his little red shoes/I see you know he’s got clean clothes," he moans only able to stand dumbly before them struck mute by overwhelming desire as they point at him like they would any other oddball vagabond. Morrison continues this thread of abstract pleading with "Beside You," a tune that flies in the face of typical rock balladry -- all chauvinist posturing usually presenting lovey sentiment as a front to get in someone's pants -- by setting his ideal place with his love at her side, not in front. That distinction is as important as Morrison's lyrical style in general, which tumbles out in impressionistic sketches that create vibrant images of lusting for a teenage girl ("Cyprus Avenue") and a drag queen down on his luck ("Madam George").
To call them sketches, even, is to imply that they are unfinished, which is untrue. Better to say sketches in the sense that the portraits are complete but rough enough to spark the imagination of the appraiser. The album's first lines, "If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dreams" are so out-there that they create a surreal bedrock that grounds the entire album, yet by the second listen such lyrics are as essential to the "narrative" as anything describing the characters Morrison crafts. These lines break the songs of Astral Weeks from the literal quality found in Morrison's single-track masterpiece "T.B. Sheets," that infinitely disturbing dirge that proved the genius of Van the Man far more readily than "Gloria" or "Brown-Eyed Girl." Here, Morrison's penchant for such bizarre, atmospheric lines shatters the songs in such a way that "Cyprus Avenue" doesn't communicate the disturbing hint of ephebophilia it should but a universal sense of deep, unrestrained longing. Similarly, "Madam George" may well not be about a transvestite, as Morrison long contended, as the character is so human that we place ourselves in this bleak world that has reduced George to a series of actions so perfunctory they may be as involuntary as breathing. George is outlandish enough a person to live a far grander life, but even the people who attend his parties but cannot look him in the eye, and when a defeated George boards a train out of Belfast at the end to perhaps find some shred of happiness and acceptance, Morrison turns the song into one of the great outcast anthems, speaking more directly to feelings of alienation than even the best punk and metal.
Morrison's lyrical style propels the album through its various styles, both the anchor at the extremity of his musical wondering: every so often, Morrison latches onto a phrase in one of his songs and simply sings it over and over. Whether gently repeating "to be born again" on the title track or building to a miniature frenzy and a barely restrained scat singing session with his rapid "Way up on, way up on, way up on, etc." on "Cyprus Avenue" -- this restraint would disappear in a live format, where Morrison would close his shows in the '70s with a fiercely impassioned version of the song -- Van uses his repetitions to get at the heart of the material, tapping into the slipstream of the album itself to allow for easy passage from the folky opener to the jagged harpsichord of "Cyprus Avenue" to the borderline swing of "The Way That Young Lovers Do" (signaled out as a departure from the rest of the album, but damn it we need some moment of lighter material to calm down) to the deceptively simply chord progression of "Ballerina."
No ordinary musicians could follow Morrison through this journey through what is basically all the roots music the Stones didn't cover with Exile on Main St., and Van enlisted a powerhouse group of session men with storied backgrounds in jazz. Bassist Ray Davis, who aligns so perfectly with Morrison that he's likely responsible for the album's cohesion, played on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. Warren Smith played percussion for Miles Davis, Nat King Cole and more, while drummer Connie Kay recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Guitarist Jay Berliner even contributed to Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. (John Payne also contributes woodwinds throughout.) Only on an album like Astral Weeks could this considerable lineup not be considered overqualified to work on a pop record, but these cats give it their all as they navigate through Morrison's constructed cosmos.
After all, not even Davis guides the record as much as Van's voice, one of the most astonishingly elastic in rock history. Though Astral Weeks lacks some of the inspired scatting that can be found on such seminal pieces as "Listen to the Lion," Van manages to run through a number of styles one would consider impossible for a white man to pull off. Blue-eyed soul was a pejorative term for crackers who tried to ape the sound of James Brown, Ray Charles and others while essentially softening the racial tradition of the form in order to play to segregated radio stations. Morrison invalidates the racial distinction: just because he's white doesn't mean he can't feel pain, and his warbles, croons, moans and yells are as passionate as anything to come out of Motown, precisely because he doesn't really want to simply copy Stax/Volt artists (though he did just that with his next album, Moondance and was no less convincing) but to explore his own emotions. Consider how Morrison turns the simply constructed "Ballerina" into a dramatic piece simply through his voice modulations, moving from desire to joy to weariness, defeat and, at last, fleeting hope in seven minutes of breathtaking dynamic shifts.
How exactly Van's travels through the passages of his nasal cavity work still defy me, and many people, myself included, dismiss him early on as a grating singer. But those who bother to truly listen to his vocal stretches and how they apply to the material. As he does with the lyrics, Morrison uses his oddball ululations to find some shared current between artist and audience, somehow warping his deeply personal impression of the world, here contained to Belfast like a companion piece to Joyce's own stream-of-consciousness vision of Dublin, into something that burrows into our own way of thinking until the abstract becomes the familiar, as if we'd come up with the actual lyrics and sent them to Morrison to sing. Even esoteric lines such as "Talking to Huddie Leadbetter/Showin' pictures on the walls," derived from something as simple as Morrison's habit of bringing a poster of Lead Belly on the road with him to hang on the walls of his various rooms take on a resonance in those who have no clue who the hell the legendary bluesman is.
In his beautiful, in-depth and vital essay on Astral Weeks, gonzo critic Lester Bangs noted, "Van Morrison was 22 -- or 23 -- years old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it." What he doesn't mention is that the material on Astral Weeks existed in some form for several years, and that some of this material existed in a larval state before the man exited his teens. But the sentiment is entirely correct: most young adults are earnest. We are coming into our beliefs for the first time, to say nothing of the fact that we are emerging from the stifling cocoon society wraps its children inside, eyes burning and blinking in the sudden burst of light before vision clears to show a world so much more troubling than the movies and the pop ballads could every convey. Most of us try to run back into the shell, to wallow in adolescence until something forcibly removes us from the haven; it explains why so many indie rockers make their living adamantly trying not to learn how to play, how even the best of them (Modest Mouse, the initial promise of Arcade Fire) work because they trade in off-key pop that's sincere and clever enough to appeal to the hip but no less afraid of maturity than most of what burns up the charts.
Morrison never cared for any of that. Like recent Joy Division/Bruce Springsteen mash-up The National, Van understands that the only way to get through adulthood is to accept it, but not without paying attention. The tortured characters found within Astral Weeks are just as grotesque as anyone in a Tom Waits vignette, and even more tragic. I've never held much stock in the antipathy people feel toward politics in art (though I certainly don't value it to the same extent as humanism); emotional didactism exists as much as proselytizing in art, and I find manipulation toward a desired feeling cheaper than an intellectual message, however dumbly stated. But if humanism overpowers politics, and it does, then it can be even more confrontational, and I can think of no other album that forces the listener to evaluate and re-evaluate life like Astral Weeks. Through Morrison, the fictional characters become real, and the performer serves as the conduit to transfer their pain onto us.
Like the best jazz, Astral Weeks is layered, intricate and heady without sacrificing its property of inner transportation. It's less impressive that Van Morrison made this as a young man than it is that anyone tapped into such a pure musical vein at any stage of life. Released in a period dominated by either political confrontation or drugged-out visions of utopia, Astral Weeks finds the perfect balance, forcing us to look at the world even as it cobbles together a message of hope that's more earned than the tune-in-drop-out fantasies that distracted the boomers from all the goals they thought they were accomplishing by doping up and listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers. His Belfast is neither Heaven nor Hell but simply Earth, a place of darkness and light. Caught in the purity of his music, Morrison does not give into depression, no matter how tempting it is at times, relating universal pain and then trying to find the path that leads out of it. What he recognizes at the end, on a "Slim Slow Slider" cut off with a guitar slap that silences what was meant to be a longer jam, is that we cannot escape from reality. For all its nastiness, that recognition is as forward-looking and hopeful as any other upbeat moment on the album: if we spend our lives running away, we'll never make anything better. Now that's a depressing thought.
*Bang! Records put out Blowin' Your Mind! without his consent and sent Morrison scurrying to Warner Bros. in the wake of its hasty release and its forced marketing to the drug crowd of '67 (though I would have liked to have seen the faces of the flower children who took to the stupid psychedelic cover and brought it home expecting trippy goodness, only to be met by the directness of "T.B. Sheets").