Released in November of 1968, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s second album and first classic. Melding together jazz, rock, and folk the album is like entering into a different world. The lyrics read like a stream of conscience or listening to someone try and describe their dreams to you. There were no hits here, no “Brown Eyed Girl” so the first bits of listening for most are to the actual album. The expanded edition was released in 2015 and offers different versions of four of the album’s eight tracks.
Produced in New York by Lewis Merenstein, by most accounts Van Morrison would arrive to the studio and lock himself in the isolation booth with an acoustic guitar and let the talented jazz musicians play what they felt the song needed. Most followed Morrison’s singing along with Richard Davis’ bass. Several stories indicated that Morrison was aloof and never connected with the other musicians. Much to Morrison’s chagrin, strings were overdubbed afterwards and clearly not what the singer wanted however, the minimalist style throughout Astral Weeks make the strings welcome and never overwhelm the song.
The first song is the title track and gives an introduction of what the rest of the album will sound like. Morrison sings “If I ventured in the slipstream/between the viaducts of your dream” over a bed of folk and jazz stylings. One of several mantras, “Beside You” repeats “You breathe in/you breathe out” over spare instrumentation, mostly just an acoustic guitar that recalls the Leonard Cohen debut.
“Sweet Thing” is one of the tracks that stands out for the memorable music instead of the great singing and lyrics. “The Way Young Lovers Do” is the shortest track here, the upbeat swinging big band number sounds more like a performance vs the personal introspection that appears elsewhere. At nine minutes, “Ballerina” is the oldest song dating back Morrison’s time with the band Them. A vibraphone accompanies the loving and tender lyrics. A shorter run time could have made this a potential single.
Two of the featured tracks both centre around Cyprus Avenue in a wealthy area of Belfast. “Cyprus Avenue” lyrically revolves around a remembrance of a fourteen-year girl while a younger Morrison watches from the car and is too afraid to speak. He then imagines the girl of his dreams with ribbons in her hair being driven in a carriage by white horses. “Madame George” features excellent violin playing and another mantra in “and the loves to love to love to love” before a fine bit of hi hat drumming towards the end of the track.
I first really started listening to this album in January of 2019 then picked it up again recently. There is a lot to unpack on this album as it is truly an album to step into and live in for ¾ of an hour. I’ve always known Van Morrison as an older gentleman so it is fascinating to think that all of this was conceived when he was just 23 years old. Astral Weeks is an extraordinary album that will hopefully find new fans in every generation.