I’m nothing but a stranger in this world…
When Lester Bangs described Astral Weeks as a “mystical document,” he was in no uncertain terms misleading the listener. Because this album is nothing short of being a spiritual and holy article and one which Paul McCartney voted as his favourite album. That Van Morrison was a mere 23 years old when he recorded it makes it just that more astonishing. How someone so young could produce such a work of profound genius is beyond even that of Dylan Thomas.
I bought this album for ten dollars, and I must say it was the best ten dollars I ever spent. As soon as I pressed play, what was coming out of my speakers was nothing short of remarkable. The fact that I loved jazz may have had something to do with it, I don’t know, because I was quite young at the time, and relatively innocent to such free-form universal concepts of expression. Even as a teenager I had heard my Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, but nothing prepared me for this, this sweet, sweet symphony of words and poetic intonations which never cease to capture the imagination, and inspire me no end.
There can be no doubt that Astral Weeks should be taken on an emotional level, and experienced as a complete whole. This means that the entire task of analysing every single song is rendered pointless. When Morrison sings “I’m nothing but a stranger in this world” on the title track, you believe him. And when he wishes “To be born again” he comes across as one of the Apostles crooning about his troubles. On “Beside You” Morrison wails away, while the group make it up as they go along, somehow improvising their way through Van’s lyrical cogitations.
“Sweet Thing” is absolutely perfect in every way, like a pint of Guinness, or a full Moon on a Summer’s night. Personally I can never weary of “gardens all wet with rain” and “champagne eyes,” Van’s words are pure poetry, and seem to offer a window into his actual mind and soul. Not an unusual thing for him, but unique all the same. The baroque beauty of “Cyprus Avenue” is full of mysterious, mythical wonder, somehow hypnotizing the listener in its fragile splendour.
“The Way Young Lovers Do” is unadulterated joy, where Van blends jazz, soul, and R&B, making it his own. The lengthy “Madam George” is akin to an extended poem, only sung to an avant-garde rhythm section. Morrison’s words not only hold you but draw you in, deeper and ever further into the portrait he is painting, which unfolds before your eyes as if in real-time. If anything, Astral Weeks is an extremely visual album. Like Under Milk Wood or The Ancient Mariner, it is brimming with delicious and vivid imagery, as if one were being taken on a personal tour by Van himself along the streets and landscapes of his mind.
The visuals continue with “Ballerina”, a delicate, soulful piece, and another internal monologue, throughout which Morrison proves himself not only to be a master of observation, but also a person who is capable of evoking the most profound emotions from out of extremely ordinary human experiences. Morrison could probably write a song about baked beans and make it seem like one of the most weighty and thoughtful of incidents you’ve ever had in your entire life. That’s just how talented he is; to the extent that in my estimation he is the Wordsworth of popular music. Transforming the banal into the beautiful.
The album finishes on a sombre, reflective note with “Slim Slow Slider,” not the sort of thing you might want to put on during a first date, but it is an appropriate way to end the occasion nonetheless. When Morrison sings “Saw you early this morning/With your brand new boy and your Cadillac/You’re gone for something/And I know you won’t be back,” there is an earnest, aching quality to his voice, as if he were baring his entire heart to the listener.
Unfortunately Morrison would very rarely revisit this aspect of his creative side again. Though one gets the impression that the moment he put something to tape, he was off exploring other paths less travelled. Astral Weeks has an almost Ulysses-like mythology surrounding it, something bordering on the metaphysical if you ask me, which is precisely how I feel every time I listen to it. As Van himself once remarked “The songs are poetic stories, so the meaning is the same as always – timeless and unchanging.” Depending on the listener, this is one album that will forever remain close to your heart.