KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

VAN MORRISON Part 10 – Astral Weak? / In Conclusion

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.

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16 comments on “VAN MORRISON Part 10 – Astral Weak? / In Conclusion

  1. Grant
    May 1, 2011

    It’s tough to live up to the hype of being labelled a legendary album!
    Astral Weeks is a favourite of mine, but I can understand there are those
    that don’t feel it the same way. But side one? ….wow.

    -g

    Like

    • KamerTunesBlog
      May 1, 2011

      Hi Grant. Would love to have a “wow” moment with Astral Weeks. I’ll continue to listen in the future and hope to see the light. I did have a lot of “wow” moments throughout his catalog, though, so I can’t complain. Thanks for checking in.
      Best…
      Rich

      Like

  2. Alan Cohen
    May 1, 2011

    Just wanted to point out another Van Morrison-Springsteen connection. If you listen to the very last part of “Madame George”, where a violin motif comes in and keeps repeating until the end of the song, it is eerily similar to the very last part of “Born to Run”. Actually, Van starts the line vocally and the violin then starts repeating it.

    So, nice journey and good luck on many more. Also, you did nice percussion work on the live version of Solas’ Coconut Dog/Morning Dew.

    Like

    • KamerTunesBlog
      May 1, 2011

      Hi Alan. I will definitely have to do an A-B comparison of those two songs, as I never made a connection between them. You’ve always had a knack for finding similarities between songs, so I trust your judgment. As for the Solas comment, may I ask “What?”
      Rich

      Like

  3. Grant
    May 3, 2011

    Time for more video evidence!
    Cypress Avenue was a great live performance in the early 70s.

    Like

    • KamerTunesBlog
      May 5, 2011

      Hi Grant. Thanks for posting that great performance of Cyprus Avenue. I love the arrangement, which is more soulful than the album version. I also enjoyed Van’s stage presence, and the way he conducted the band with just a wave of his arm. I haven’t had much time to search for live recordings lately, as I’ve been concentrating on the albums, so I appreciate you sharing these excellent clips.
      Rich

      Like

  4. Grant
    May 8, 2011

    I’m not sure if I read it somewhere, but I thought Van was definitely doing his own version of a James Brown performance thing in the early 70’s. Like the performance of Cypress Avenue on the “Too late to stop now” album, Van was doing James:

    Like

    • KamerTunesBlog
      May 13, 2011

      Hi Grant. There’s no doubt in my mind that Van was hugely influenced by James Brown. He may not have had JB’s incredible stage moves, but he had his own twist on JB’s theatricality. I also love the way he “conducts” the band on stage, especially in the Cyprus Avenue clip you previously posted. There may never have been a more electric live performer than James Brown in his prime, with the “Please Please Please” video being a great example.

      Like

  5. DC Cardwell
    January 3, 2014

    Basically, I’m in TOTAL agreement with you! Well… probably I like it more than you do. I would say I do actually love the album, but I still think it leaves me strangely cold! I know that sounds like a contradiction.

    But you and I are possibly the only people to have ever said a bad word about Astral Weeks! It’s almost like one of those things I call a “guilty displeasure”, except it’s not really a DISpleasure at all, it’s just praise that’s very faintly on the faint side.

    Unlike you, I think it’s better taken in small doses, as it starts to sound samey after a while. I think it’s a little LESS than the sum of its parts. The songs, the words, the playing, the singing, is all brilliant, but the album as a whole just feels a little flat to me. But when a single song pops up somewhere I really get in the groove and enjoy the sound and the imagery.

    I agree that if it didn’t have SUCH a big reputation I would probably value it more! The other thing to note, is that it’s hard for someone like me to really know what it would have felt like to hear it when it first came out. It would certainly have been a startling revelation back then. And it would have opened wide a lot of doors, a lot of pathways for rock musicians to contemplate exploring.

    But, at heart, I’m a fan of catchy pop music and soul music with a bit of a kick to it. So the early 70s albums are always going to be more up my alley. For someone who leaned just a little more towards dreamy, acoustic, exotic, extended extemporized rock-jazz it might be just the job, and they might find his electric soul-pop a little on the frivolous side in comparison. And, of course, someone like that would be wondering why one earth did he only ever do it ONCE!

    Like

    • I’m glad we’re pretty much on the same page regarding Astral Weeks. It’s hard to find people who know the album & feel the same way, since most of the fans I’ve encountered over the years consider it to be significantly better than anything else he’s done. For years, various friends & colleagues would accuse me of not understanding what Van was striving for, and even suggested that I probably didn’t “get” the jazz vibe (even though I’ve been a jazz fan since high school, have a broader knowledge of the subject, and own a larger collection of jazz LPs & CDs than any of them). What it comes down to is, do I find the album to be a fully enjoyable listening experience, from top-to-bottom, and the answer is….a qualified “yes.” I do really like the album, but I don’t think it’s on the same level (as a cohesive statement or merely a collection of musical pieces) as at least 7-8 other Van albums. I’ve had similar arguments with friends regarding the Stones’ “Exile On Main Street,” which I really like but don’t consider to be the pinnacle of their career.

      Since I wrote this Van series, I got a copy of Astral Weeks on 180-gram vinyl, and it has a lot more warmth than the ’80s-pressed CD I’ve owned for years. I love vinyl but I’m not one of those people who claims that everything is better in that format. It’s always a case-by-case basis, and in this instance the vinyl pressing brings out a lot of nuances that I had never heard before.

      Like

  6. DC Cardwell
    February 4, 2014

    Haha – I can imagine people being upset by your comments on Astra Weeks! And that must be so annoying if they suggest you don’t understand jazz. I’m the same, I am an enthusiastic and educated jazz fan and even play the style, particularly Django Reinhardt style, but you’ve heard our version of “Stars Fell On Alabama” and from that alone it would be clear that I know what I’m doing when it comes to jazz.

    I tend to agree about “Exile On Main Street” as well. As has been said about almost every great double album in history, I’d say it would have made a killer single album. But of course it’s no surprise that that sentiment is often expressed, as it is completely logical that almost every double album would make a better single album – there are always going to be a number of stronger songs and some weaker ones.

    But I do still love it, and I enjoy its sprawling nature and the mixed emotions (pun not intended) it inspires. When I first heard it, knowing its reputation, I remember being bemused by the overall muddy sound. But you don’t notice that so much after a while. And I don’t often listen to the Stones in original album form anyway, so I’m not one to judge. I love them, but the only albums I own are their first one, Exile, and the brilliant “London Years” singles box set, which I’ve made my own version of, adding a few essential other tracks from both the period that it covers and also their best from the time after. That makes it REALLY perfect!

    I’m in no way a vinyl enthusiast, but I first knew Astral Weeks from a 70s vinyl copy, so the 80s CD can’t be to blame for my misgivings.

    Like

    • DC,
      Although I mostly agree with your comments about double albums, there are some that work specifically because they’re overstuffed with musical ideas, and a condensed version wouldn’t have the same impact. Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Quadrophenia are two that immediately spring to mind, but they each have a conceptual theme that ties the story together. When artists have released double album collections of non-related songs, that’s usually where a single disc version might have had more impact. Then again, The Beatles’ The White Album and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti are special because of their heft. A lot of fans feel that way about Exile On Main Street, so I wouldn’t argue with them. I just know that there are Stones albums I like a lot more than that, and I feel the same way about Astral Weeks (even though that takes us away from the double-album conversation).

      Rich

      Like

  7. Bob Golino
    April 15, 2014

    I first heard Madame George in 1969 on the radio when I was in High School (I am 62 now) it was two in the morning and I was reading late. I was instantly entranced by it and the next day went out and got the album. I Think it is one of those rare pieces of music that you either connect with or you don’t. My room mates in college couldn’t stand it, perhaps because I played it all the time. I don’t think it is a question of being able to like it better by analyzing it. you either relate or connect to it or you don’t. By the way it is the only album I have a special “connection” to. I like the rest of Van’s music but not in the same way

    Like

    • Hi Bob. Thanks for sharing your history with “Madame George” and Astral Weeks. I’ve often wondered if my opinion on that record would be different had it been my first exposure to Van’s music. Already being a fan of some of his later albums by the time I first heard it, I probably had certain expectations which it didn’t live up to. I do like the album a lot, but it’s still not in my top 4 or 5 Van albums. I do, however, continue to play it periodically and I appreciate it more now (since I wrote this post 3 years ago) than ever before.

      I appreciate you stopping by.
      Best wishes,
      Rich

      Like

  8. mtv22
    September 10, 2015

    Really enjoyed your critique of Morrisons’ work. (I’m a little late to the party but better late than never:-). I’ve always felt that this work was his most autobiographical given that the locales name checked in the songs are his environs growing up and have wondered like you the meaning of the beginning and afterward of side one and two. I read once where it denoted the beginning and ending of an affair. I’m not sure, guess it could be because it does seem that side one celebrates an idealism of youthful fancy while side two appears to represent a more mature theme. I’ve always imagined a tension in Van because I believe he was quite naturally intimidated by the musicianship surrounding him at this stage of his career and this helps contribute to the drama of these recordings. I played the album for a friend over thirty years ago (he loved Moondance, who doesn’t?) and he closed his eyes and marveled at the swoops of tempo saying it reminded him of images of mountains and valleys. Not sure if Listen to the Lion and You Don’t Push the River, etc. would or could exist in their eventual forms without the confidence and possibilities that Van gained from this album. Btw, gonzo critic Lester Bangs wrote a nice essay on the effect that this record had on him personally. Thanks again, really enjoyed.

    Like

    • Hi there, mtv22. Apologies for my delayed response to your insightful comments. My life has been in turmoil (some self-imposed, some unexpected & unwanted) for a few months, so my blog…and music in general…has sadly taken a back seat. I’m slowly re-emerging and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget to acknowledge your contribution to this conversation about Van Morrison. Since he was the first artist I covered when I began my blog 4-1/2 years ago, I find it fitting that I’m dipping my toes back into the blogging world with this discussion. You made a great point about those later songs not existing in their final forms without the confidence & growth he experienced with Astral Weeks. I also hadn’t considered the possible intimidation he felt by the musicians he was working with at the time. It’s hard to think of him being intimidated based on his reputation but he was still a very young man at the time. I will keep all of your comments in mind the next time I play this record. Thanks again for your input. It’s greatly appreciated.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

      Liked by 1 person

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