Van Morrison is one of those unique artists, uncompromising, independent and relentless in their pursuit of creative expression. What stand him apart from other artists is his inherent ability to blend different musical styles together to create something that is unique and heartfelt. Lyrically he is just as virtuosic, he can write songs that are passionate and intense and dripping with emotion but he can also look over his shoulder and be reflective and he can also draw on literary tradition to give his stories a dense ambiguity.
Astral Weeks is an album that was released at a time when music was becoming more indulgent and pompous, there was a growing revival movement for music with honesty and spirit. Astral Weeks fit into that, musically it was totally different from just about anything that was released that year. It's musical canvas was a weave of jazz, folk, blues and classical music with lyrics that were rich with romantic imagery. Morrison had been living in Cambridge Massachusetts trying to extricate himself from an onerous recording contract with Bang Records. He was performing in local clubs in a trio that concentrated on more acoustic folk based songs. Morrison eventually signed with Warner Brothers and was pared with producer Lewis Merenstein who assembled a crack session unit for the sessions. On drums was Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet, Richard Davis on bass who had played with Eric Dolphy, acoustic guitarist Jay Berliner and John Payne from Morrisons Cambridge trio on flute and saxophone.
The title track is an acoustic dreamy song, it's the first introduction to that voice, sweeping and intense with occasional bursts of soul singing. It has that relaxed jazz feel, loping bass lines, the flute drifts in and out of the song same with the string accompaniment. Lyrically it has that Dylan feel, with these poetic lines that are free form, it matches the music perfectly.
If I ventured thru the slipstream
Through the viaduct of your dreams
Where immobile steel rims crack,
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Beside you makes you think of the dark streets of Belfast, the album has a very nostalgic feel to it, it has that romantic feel of life in another time. Morrison's singing is impassioned with some nice acoustic figures from Jay Berliner, the sparseness of the arrangement lends itself to Morrison's vocals. Sweet Thing was a song I remember as a kid, my Dad had it on a best of album and I was always intrigued with the bass line and the jagged tempo of the snare. In the gaps between the verses strings bounce in as John Payne dances on top of the song. This song made me think of a country setting, with green hills it's a very evocative song.
And I will walk and talk in gardens
All wet with rain
For me Cypress Avenue is the point where Morrison gets that musical blend, where all the influences merge and mingle. It's a baroque soul song! Harpsichord and swirling strings and Davis playing a very melodic bass line. Once again Morrison paints these vivid stories of early years in Belfast, Cypress Avenue was a street in a wealthy suburb in Belfast. The Way Young Lovers Do is a rolling jazz influenced number probably the straightest number with a pronounced R&B flavour, reminiscent of his time in the band Them. The bridge has this section where the horn line sounds blurred.
Madame George take us back to Cypress Avenue Morrison stepping back on to the streets of Belfast, the song conjuring up characters, train rides to Dublin and up to Sandy Road. It was said that Madame George was a transvestite but Morrison has stated that the character is an amalgamation of six or seven different people.
Kids out in the streets collecting bottle tops
Going for cigarettes and matches in the shops
Ballerina is delicate, it was old song that Them had performed live but never recorded. Slow Slim Slider was also an indication of where Van was going in the future, very soulful but he would add more colour to each song, with horns and more drums. It's also a dark song about the impending death of a girl and that both of them know it's going to happen. It was rare to hear these types of songs in the late 60's, the songwriting had just come such a long way, so many different influences had shaped the artists attitude to songwriting. Bob Dylan should share most of the kudos for that development, he gave budding songwriters the confidence to explore and realise that a song could be crafted from anywhere and in anyway that writer saw fit.