Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I’ve spent most of the last month listening to Van Morrison’s catalog numerous times. It’s been really enjoyable getting to know these CDs that have been sitting on my shelves for so long, and I saved what many fans & critics consider his best for last. That album, of course, is Astral Weeks (1968).
Not only is this considered his best album; it’s often referenced as one of the best albums ever recorded by any artist. I probably got this CD in the late-80s, and although I’ve always enjoyed it, I never felt it was among his truly best work. It’s certainly different than anything else he recorded. Considering he was in his early 20s and this was his first real solo album, it’s impressive that he made such a mature-sounding record. But as I mentioned on the “About” page of this blog, it’s always left me feeling a little cold. I’m sure there will be people reading this thinking to themselves, “WHAT? This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Well, I’ve been hearing that from friends for years, so that kind of reaction is nothing new to me.
I’ve made it a point to listen to this album at least once a year, hoping to one day “get” it. Every time it ends I think, “It’s excellent, but I still prefer several of his other albums. Why do so many people consider this his masterwork?” I listened to it three times this past week, including once with high-quality headphones while studying the lyrics for the first time, and my feelings still haven’t changed. Perhaps its legendary status is affecting my opinion. If this was a forgotten album in his catalog I might feel differently about it, but when something is so universally praised it has a lot to live up to. I like the fact that it’s more of a song cycle than just a random collection of individual songs. Van clearly had a vision, splitting the album into two halves: “In The Beginning” and “Afterwards.” I’m not sure exactly what that vision was, though. I’m hoping someone can explain it to me so when I revisit it again next year I might approach it from a new perspective.
The only musician here whose work I was previously familiar with was drummer Connie Kay, who was better known as part of the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet. His playing throughout is incredibly subtle. The others were also accomplished jazz players, with Richard Davis’ bass playing being a key component to the overall sound. It seems that the other musicians, including Van, follow the bass lines & play around them. I’ve read that a lot of the music was improvised in the studio, with little or no guidance from Van, so it’s hard to imagine how the songs ever came together. It often feels like they’re already in progress when the tracks start, and this is reinforced by the fact that there is no standard verse-chorus song structure. Other than the relatively upbeat, horn-punctuated “The Way Young Lovers Do,” there’s a melancholy mood throughout. I suppose the standout tracks would be “Cyprus Avenue,” “Ballerina” and “Madame George,” but I don’t know if these songs would work as well out of the context of the album. It should be listened to from beginning to end.
[Van Morrison – “The Way Young Lovers Do”]
For anyone who’s a fan of Astral Weeks, I would recommend checking out:
– Any of the first four albums by The Pentangle, for their hybrid of British folk & jazz and the bass & drums interplay between Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, which reminds me of the Astral Weeks rhythm section.
– Anything by Nick Drake. He may not have had the vocal charisma of Van Morrison, but musically he was a kindred spirit.
– The Cat Stevens album Mona Bone Jakon. Between his late-60s pop star phase & his early-70s singer-songwriter superstardom, he recorded this album in 1970 that, to me, has many of the characteristics that people often use to describe Astral Weeks.
So there you have it: 36 Van Morrison albums revisited. It’s been a pleasure spending so much time with them, re-discovering the greatness of some while new favorites were uncovered in the process. In the future when I’m in the mood for Van Morrison, I’ll have a better knowledge of his catalog, and I’ll know what to expect when I pull certain CDs off the shelf. If you have any comments, whether agreeing with my assessments or pointing out songs/performances I might have missed, please share them in the Comments section. Now it’s time to move on to my next artist. Thanks for reading.